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Yule Laugh, Yule Cry 

Sanders Family Christmas resonates a little more this year

History repeats itself in scary and delightful ways in City Theatre's production of Sanders Family Christmas -- Smoke on the Mountain, Part 2. When Smoke 2 premiered in 1999, the authors were cashing in on the popularity of the original Smoke on the Mountain, mining the comedic Sanders family for more box-office gold. They could hardly imagine the relevance it would have in 2003: On Christmas Eve, 1941, eighteen days after Pearl Harbor, the gospel-singing Sanders family gathers at the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church for a final show before nineteen-year-old Dennis goes off to basic training. The family's emotions surrounding the enlistment of their son, and America's involvement in World War II, are eerily familiar today, as so many of our own friends and loved ones spend this year's holidays abroad.

Although tinged with the darkness of war, Sanders Family Christmas is a comedy at heart, a family-friendly performance of the best kind. The music and monologues aren't as memorable as in the original play, but this production's exceptionally strong cast carries the show beyond stereotype and predictability. Christopher Limber and Donna Weinsting reprise their roles as parents Burl and Vera. Limber, an accomplished guitarist and singer, proves equally adept as a storyteller, captivating the audience with memories of World War I. Limber is equally interesting to watch while he's not speaking; his reactions seem completely natural. As Bible verse-spouting Vera, Weinsting displays perfect comic timing and appropriate motherly emotions. While nothing could top the "june-bug-on-a-leash" children's sermon of Smoke on the Mountain, the writers of Smoke 2 do their best, and Weinsting delivers the slapstick humor with energy.

Also returning from last year's cast is Anna Blair as June, the daughter who signs and provides sound effects. Her antics once again provide much of the show's humor. June is the love interest of Pastor Oglethorpe, played with charming innocence by Chopper Leifheit. His initially overblown grief about his mother's recent death dissipates as his admiration for June increases; his awkward attempts to get close to her throughout the show provide lots of sweetly comic moments. June's response to his marriage proposal seems a bit too angry, but not surprisingly, it all works out in the end.

Eric Little and Julie Venegoni look and sound terrific as twins Dennis and Denise. Their voices blend beautifully, and Little's astounding falsetto makes the family's rendition of "Away in the Manger" truly remarkable. Dennis presents a fervent (and frightening) wartime theology -- "The Lord created war and taught us about war" -- and his intense portrayal is heartfelt and believable. As Uncle Stanley, jailbird turned country music star, Steve Isom is a blend of sinister and sincere. His vocals and bass playing provide solid support; his understated testimony gives us straight talk instead of sentimental sap -- and his yodeling's not bad, either.

The only misstep in the production is in the continued use of the characters of Miss Myrtle and Miss Maude, the church ladies whose approval Pastor Oglethorpe continually seeks. In last year's production, Myrtle and Maude were an integral part of the plot. This year they're not. Having two actresses in costume is distracting and unnecessary, and they're left uncomfortably stranded at the end of the show.

This is the third time City Theatre has produced a December show in the chapel space at St. John's United Methodist Church, and all of them have been directed by Teresa Doggett. She seems quite at ease with the small stage, providing nice visual variety, and I attribute the attractive costumes to her as well, although no one is credited in the playbill as the costume designer. Music director Kevin Kurth and musicians Daniel Higgins and Dave Landreth add to the high quality of the show. The play ends simply, with the audience joining the characters in traditional Christmas carols, accompanied by Pastor Oglethorpe on accordion. It reminds us of past holidays and brings us back to the present. We stand together singing in a chapel, remembering soldiers and war, family and fun, and praying for peace.

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