REVIEWSREVIEWS BYTheatre ReviewsTom Williams

Sander’s Family Christmas

By Connie Raysanders family christmas

Conceived by Alan Bailey

Directed by Tim Gregory

Musical Director: Larry Rothbard

At Provision Theatre, Chicago

The revisit to the Sander’s family rings hollow

The Sander’s Family Christmas finds the same white evangelicals in 1941 at Christmas time celebrating Jesus birth and the US entry into World War II. This hooky hillbilly show is a hollow remounting of Smoke On the Mountain mounted by Provision Theatre in May of 2008. That show worked on the intimate stage at the Viaduct Theatre as a novelty bluegrass musical.

sanders family christmas

The Christmas Sander’s show simply doesn’t work as the larger stage and all the ‘testifying’ (preaching and religious storytelling) slowed the show to a crawl. The dated references to the war and the down-home rural traits wore thin over 2 hours. The music also played poorly as many of the songs were difficult to hear as guitars and the piano drowned out some solos. But my biggest difficulty with this show were all the boring testifying. I thought I was going to see a Christmas show, not visit a Evangelical church service. I was also offended by the religious justification for war that came from the preachers in words and song.

sanders family christmas

I though Kevin O’Brien played the Reverend Mervin Oglethrope as a manic, obnoxious jerk who tried to upstage everyone to the point of being an irritant. With the sound problems and the bland bluegrass tunes (where was a banjo?), Sander’s Family Christmas is a too long and too religious a show that is more of a church service than a play or music concert. This sequel is a carbon copy of the original sans the fine musicianship.  This formula bombs as a Christmas show.  I wonder who the audience is for this turkey? It plays like a hillbilly church service that is not exactly fare for  sophisticated Chicago audiences.  A strange choice for a Provision Theatre Company that usually mounts outstanding shows.

Not Recommended

Tom Williams

At Provision Theatre, 1001 W.Roosevelt Road, Chicago, IL, call 866-811-4111,, tickets $25 – $28, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 3 pm, running time is 2 hours with intermission, through December 23, 2010

11 thoughts on “Sander’s Family Christmas

  • Evelyn

    I enjoyed the simplicity of this unique play genre. It was also refreshing to see such mutli-talented actor/musicians performing without microphones in a procenium theatre in Chicago for a change. Afterward, I left the theatre truly in the Christmas spirit: joyous, reflective, and happy to have meet this hilarious family of characters. The same struggle of saying good-bye to loved ones who courageously fight oversas today is so relevant and rings so true. This may not be a Christmas show for everyone, but its themes, as shared so generously through Provision fine production, follow their mission statement. A wonderful experience.

  • Brandon

    While I agree that church services are not everyone’s idea of a good time, and that the justification for war was pretty flimsy, I do not hold with ad hominem attacks about how the characters are hillbillies or somesuch. It says a lot about your character for looking down on someone or something just because they are different than you. “Sophisticated” indeed.

  • I believe my term for these mountain folks is accurate.

  • Dear Mr. Williams,

    I just read your recent review of our production, SANDERS FAMILY CHRISTMAS.
    Wow! What can I say? You really missed the mark on this one.
    Your review is saturated with animosity and intolerance.

    Let’s start with just the mention of the racial make-up of the cast. Do you always list the racial breakdown of the cast in every show you review? Why did you in this case? Why such a racially motivated remark? It has absolutely nothing to do with the story. I don’t believe you listed the racial make-up of our production, COTTON PATCH GOSPEL, which was based on the writings of CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST Clarence Jordan. A play that encouraged racial harmony and integration.

    You know, in theater, we have something called the “magic if”. A helpful tool in recreating and representing truth on stage. So, let’s apply this to our play. What might we find IF we looked at a small, Baptist church in North Carolina in 1941 that was visited by a 6 member gospel-singing FAMILY? A family that was all one race. Did that bother you? That the members of the same family were all one race? Would you have suggested I cast the non-member of the family, the convict, in a race other than white? Race is never mentioned one time in this play. Why did you feel a need to mention it in your review?

    Your comment, “I was also offended by the religious justification for war that came from the preachers in words and song”, was not taking into consideration the time period and the international crisis our nation was experiencing at that moment. Were you aware that this play takes place two weeks after the attacks on Pearl Harbor. Do you understand what those attacks did to our countries psyche and, in turn, deep desire to fight an enemy that attacked us on our own shores? Can you imagine what these folks might be thinking about, sending their son off to war so soon after this worst and first attack on American soil? As Christian characters, where are they supposed to seek solace and strength? Our characters were giving voice to what they were feeling at that very tenuous time.

    Do you often call people “hillbillies”? Don’t you think that’s a bit pejorative?
    This is from Wikipedia, (the encyclopedia): “Hillbilly is a term referring to people who dwell in rural, mountainous areas of the United States, primarily Appalachia. Due to its strongly stereotypical connotations, the term is frequently considered derogatory, and so is usually offensive to those Americans of Appalachian heritage.”
    It seems as if, by calling them “hillbillies” you’re placing yourself above people that maybe aren’t as sophisticated or educated as you.

    All the “boring testifying” was not your cup of tea. I understand. You can be bored by a show. That’s legit. But what do you think you would find at a small, Baptist church in North Carolina in 1941 that was hosting a Christmas Gospel Sing? Music and testifying is what you would find. Plus, Christmas IS a religious holiday.

    You said, “I wonder who the audience is for this turkey? It plays like a hillbilly church service that is not exactly fare for sophisticated Chicago audiences.” Well, let’s see what the sophisticated and popular website, BROADWAY WORLD said to it’s NEW YORK audiences about this show: “Sanders Family Christmas is a heartfelt evocation of simpler, earlier times that somehow ring so resoundingly true and relevant in the 21st Century. No matter how much things may change, they will somehow remain the same, with the pull of home and family still as strong and vibrant as ever.” – BROADWAY WORLD

    Your animus and intolerance for those that don’t believe as you really shines through on this. Is there any value in recusing yourself from seeing plays that represent a world view that’s different from yours?

    I’m grateful that there’s a large audience that doesn’t share your animosity because our ticket sales are pretty good.
    Since your review was public, I’m going to publicly post my response.


    Tim Gregory
    Artistic Director
    Provision Theater

  • My using the term ‘hillbillies’ is not meant to be pejorative but a term that they often call themselves. Because I disliked your show, I’m intolerant? Sarcastic yes, intolerant no. What I said was the same as several people said but didn’t have the guts to say so in their reviews. Since you have chosen to attack me personally for disliking this show, where is your Christian tolerance? I do have a right to express my opinion of a bad show. I have always enjoyed the work of Provision Theatre until this show and I did interview you and promoted your work through my podcast. I wonder if you always attack a reviewer if they write a negative review?
    Tom Williams

  • Tom, you didn’t address any of the questions raised in my correspondence. All you did was confuse my defending our show as an attack and respond by calling me intolerant. – Tim Gregory

  • Tell me the last time you publicly took a reviewer to task for writing a negative review? In reviewing nearly 3,000 plays in almost 10 years, I can’t remember having an artistic director writing a public response to one of my reviews.

    I was definitely a tad too sarcastic and flippant in my review but my utter dislike for religious orientated theatre drove me to write what I did. I don’t understand why you were so offended by my using the term “white” – which was my way of saying that the mountain folks were not black. I felt that since there are mission baptists who are black that I need to be specific. I guess since you are so hypersensitive, that offended you?

    It was my intent to ‘pan’ they show but NOT my intent to be politically correct. I stand by my review as being my honest reaction to the work. I’m sure there are others who will avoid reviewing the show because they don’t like bluegrass music or any church related stories and they are afraid to offend anyone. Let’s see what others say…

    I believe that my role is to honestly tell my readers what I think about the shows I review. If you’ll recall, I did recommend Smoke On the Mountain in my May 11, 2008 review. I also mentioned that “This fun show contains a tad too much preaching for my heathen mentality but the terrific old-time bluegrass music carried the show for me. Modern audiences see how the strong religious influence ruled these folk’s lives. It almost plays as cautionary tale warning about the fanatical influence of the religious right.”

    Review of Smoke On the Mountain by Tom Williams

    Spirited and toe-tapping bluegrass gospel quite entertaining

    Smoke on the Mountain, first produced in 1988, has become a stable of rural American regional theatre. Kudos to Provision Theater for mounting this musically satisfying glimpse back into an innocent time in rural America when many folks lived close to their religious beliefs and celebrated with it with blueglass gospel music. Filled with many styles of music ranging from toe-tapping acoustic bluegrass to plaintive hymns and praise-the-lord songs, Smoke on the Mountain is an enjoyable musical treat.

    Smoke on the Mountain is the story of the 1938 North Carolina Mount Pleasant Church’s first Saturday night ”sing.” Reverend Mervin Ogethorpe (Alex Goodrich, a traffic banjo player) has invited the “Singing Sanders’ family to lead the church’s first ‘sing.’ Burl Sanders (Richard Marlatt) and wife Vera Sanders (Susan Moniz) together with Burl’s brother Stanley (Jeff Harms) and their children June (Amber Burgess), Denise (Christine Barnes) and her twin Dennis (Shaun Whitley) form a gospel bluegrass band. The Sanders’ family play guitar, fiddle, bass, mandolin and piano. The have nice voices too. They mix their wide range of white gospel tunes with down-home personal antidotes and religious ‘testimonies.’ These sentimentally sweet stories are humorous adding a spiritual revival element to the show. The musicianship here is first class.

    The cast have a blend of fine voices (Susan Moniz and Richard Marlatt are terrific), offering truthful performances, especially from Shaun Whitley and Christine Barnes as the teen twins smitten with the spirit of the Lord. I enjoyed the rich harmonies and the nice mixture of bluegrass and gospel tunes. The stories give a glimpse of the Fundamental religious influence of Christianity. These rural folks’ lives are centered on their religion. Their faith explodes through their music and their general store and auto garage in rural North Carolina.

    This fun show contains a tad too much preaching for my heathen mentality but the terrific old-time bluegrass music carried the show for me. Modern audiences see how the strong religious influence ruled these folk’s lives. It almost plays as cautionary tale warning about the fanatical influence of the religious right.
    This spirited show will get your toes tapping and your hands clapping—what’s wrong with that?


    Tom Williams
    May 11, 2008

  • I was not invited to this show and have no opinion of it, but aren’t we being a little overly sensitive and politically correct here? Hillibillies is not necessarily a pejorative, but an affectionate term for rural Americans (i.e. The Beverly Hillbillies). With all due respect to those who took issue with Tom’s review, did you also take offense to the Clampet clan? Have we seriously lost our ability to communicate without fear of offending someone? Much of our humor, whether Jewish, African American, southern, gay, etc., is derived from stereotypes. The ability to laugh at ourselves and one another is extremely liberating, so lighten up folks!

  • So, given your logic and words, “What I said was the same as several people said but didn’t have the guts to say so in their reviews.”, the positive reviews that Sanders has gotten from critics is only because those critics didn’t have the “guts ” to speak the truth, like you.
    In my 25 years as a director, actor and producer, I have never written to a critic and challenged them to explain their review. Your review for Sanders seemed disrespectful to me. I’m not looking to be at odds, Tom, but this one stung.

  • I was only trying to be honest as I was when I raved your shows. I don’t see how you gain by writing to me?

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