REVIEW: Sanders Family Christmas (Provision Theatre)

  
  

A down home Christmas with brains to match its heart

  
  

Sanders Family Christmas - Provision Theater Chicago

   
Provision Theater presents
 
Sanders Family Christmas   
   
Written by Connie Ray
Conceived by
Alan Bailey
Directed by
Tim Gregory
at
Provision Theater, 1001 W. Roosevelt (map)
Through Dec 23  | 
tickets: $15-$28  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

A bluegrass musical set in a Baptist church at the start of World War II?  Let’s just say that I went into Sanders Family Christmas with low hopes. From the corny promotional images, I got the impression that Disney’s Country Bears are probably a more nuanced group of characters, and I feared the inevitably high cheese factor that comes with a traveling Christian family band. To my surprise and delight, Connie Ray Sanders Family Christmas - Provision Theater Chicago 3and Alan Bailey’s musical defies all expectations, crafting one of the best Christmas shows that I have ever seen. Director Tim Gregory and his outstanding ensemble of actors do an exceptional job making the dire circumstances of wartime America feel real.

Despite being the direct sequel to Smoke on the Mountain, no previous knowledge of the Sanders family is required to enjoy this Christmas celebration. With the audience serving as the Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church congregation, the group performs a mix of popular Christmas hymns and bluegrass inspired holiday songs. Between musical numbers, each family member is given an opportunity to witness for the congregation, and these moments are the dramatic high points of the production. As middle class Americans work extra long hours in factories and ration meals to support their troops, the Sanders family provides a source of hope and strength, and Provision Theater’s production is similarly inspiring.

With their only son Dennis (Brian Bohr) preparing to ship off to Marine basic training and twin sister Denise (Christine Barnes) joining the USO, the Sanders family is undergoing its own personal crisis.  Despite their fears, they put their trust in God in hopes that he will ultimately guide them in the direction of the greater good. The characters’ sincerity in their faith prevents them from being preachy or heavy handed, and their chemistry as a family brings a true sense of togetherness to the proceedings. The Sanders understands that they’re putting on a show, and their ever present witty banter keeps the tone light, even as the script delves into bleak areas.

Sanders patriarch Burle (Richard Martlatt) and his brother Stanley (Ron Turner) have two of the strongest moments in the show when they witness. Martlatt showcases his outstanding technique during a fast-paced, ten-minute monologue where he recalls Sanders Family Christmas - Provision Theater Chicagohis days as a trench soldier in World War I. Despite the heavy material, Martlatt’s breezy delivery maintains a level of humor that work in beautiful contrast with the weight of the words. An ex-convict turned gospel recording sensation, Stanley laments his criminal background while praising the Sanders for graciously accepting him into their family. Turner takes his time with his words, deliberating over the perfect way to describe the kindness that his family has shown him. The joy on Turner’s face as he recalls the upswing his life took after he found God warms the heart, and his ultimate conclusion that “God don’t give two cents about talent, he cares about character,” is a wonderful moment of catharsis for the weathered Sanders uncle.

Playing their own instruments and singing without any amplification, the cast is exceptionally talented. Whether they’re wrapping older sister June (Amber Burgess) in Christmas lights, delivering a youth sermon to the children of the church, or singing “Joy To The World” with the audience, they manage to engage on a deeply personal level. With Sanders Family Christmas, Provision has produced an inspiring musical that is as smart as it is heartwarming.

   
 
Rating: ★★★½  
   
  

 

     
     

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REVIEW: Godspell (Provision Theatre)

 

Pop Culture Christianity

 

 The ensemble of GODSPELL rocks out on O BLESS THE LORD, MY SOUL - (front r to l) Sarah Grant, Tiffany Cox, Richelle Meiss, Amy Steele, Jennifer Oakley.  (Back r to l) Greg Walters, Frederick Harris, Kevin O'Brien.

   
Provision Theatre presents
   
Godspell
   
Conceived by John-Michael Tebelak
Music/Lyrics by
Steven Schwartz
at
Provision Theater, 1001 W. Roosevelt Road (map)
through September 26  |  tickets: $15-$28   |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

The original Godspell (an archaic spelling of the word “gospel”) was produced in 1971, just as flower power was wilting, eventually replaced by disco fever later in the decade. At the time, many were still holding on to their all-you-need-is-love mentality despite the demise of the hippie community along with the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War. As a result, many found comfort in close-nit cults and communes, while Judas betrayal: Justin Berkobien as Judas in GODSPELL, running through September 26 at 1001 W. Roosevelt Road, Chicago, IL.others just moved on with their lives.

Still, for some, there was a Christian reawakening, a dawning of the Age of Aquarius in which it was foretold that man would achieve a greater understanding of Jesus’ message of peace and harmony. Had Godspell, a musical based on the Gospel According to Matthew, been produced at any other time, it would not have ever reached the levels of success it did. First a hit off-Broadway and then a hit on Broadway, the show saw more than 2,600 performances. Its song “Day by Day” was 13th on the Billboard pop singles chart in 1972. And in 1973, the musical was made into a major motion picture.

But these days, it appears that the portrait of the peace-loving Christian has been painted over with the image of Bible-thumping Pharisees. This begs the question: In a world populated with apocalyptic celebrities ministers, can Godspell remain relevant? In the hands of Provision Theatre’s extraordinarily talented director Tim Gregory, it can and does.

Provision’s interpretation frequently wanders off-book from the original. This is no surprise considering the show—which is really just a bunch of parables strung together—plays more like an improv review than it does a play. Characters call out to one another casually, egging each other on as they bring Jesus’ teachings of righteousness and justice to life. Gregory uses the play’s spontaneity to insert pop-culture references that serve to remove us from the musical’s dated soundtrack and transport us to the present. Be prepared for riffs on Facebook, Beyonce and the stimulus package. The jokes are utterly cornball, but then again, so is Godspell.

The costumes (created by DJ Reed) have also received a reboot to keep up with the times. Characters have traded in their bell-bottoms and denim for loud, funky garments. The end result looks like an Old Navy commercial starring Jesus and John the Baptist.

Gregory’s staging and Amber Mak’s choreography are really the highlight of this production. There’s a lot of group movement going on, but no matter how many bodies are in motion, everybody acts and reacts with one another physically, creating a larger whole out of the many parts. It is here, through the collective action, that the play’s message of connectivity and brotherhood is most apparent.

Jesus being crucified: Syler Thomas as Jesus in GODSPELL, running through September 26 at 1001 W. Roosevelt Road, Chicago, IL.

Unfortunately, most of the ensemble’s voices are lacking, which is really a significant downside for a musical. Vocal precision is rare. Instead, notes warble, passing from flat to sharp. A cordless mic is used often to enhance lead vocalists who, I suppose, don’t have the pipes to belt it out to the back of the room. There are some standouts, however, particularly Justin Berkobien as John the Baptist and Amy Steele, who sings the lead on “Day by Day”.

Provision’s Godspell is just as slaphappy and feel-good as the original. That’s fine for those who already have Jesus in their hearts. But for the cynics or the persecuted, it might ring a little out of touch with contemporary displays of Christianity. As for those that just want to see some song and dance, don’t expect a choir of angels – but there’s certainly clever choreography!

   
   
Rating:  ★★½
   
   

Extra Credit:

Read Mark Ball’s Godspell review from his blog One Chicago Man’s Opinion:

….Provision Theater’s production of Godspell was, in two words, very energetic. The joyfulness and exhuberance I mentioned above abounded from start to finish, and the actors’ collective excitement infected the audience. They properly exaggerated their characterizations, their timing was sharp, the cabaret was amusing, and the flow of the show was kinetic. But there were two major weaknesses, the first being that of bad acoustics and the second, that of bad singing. Despite the presence of some impressive vocal talent in the cast, a few soloists were clearly unprepared, one of whom caused me to cringe from his off-pitch screeching.  Read the entire review.

     
     

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Review: Provision Theatre’s “Cotton Patch Gospel”

“Cotton Patch Gospel” shines a golden ray of humanity

 

Provision Theater presents:

Cotton Patch Gospel
by Chapin, Key and Treyz
directed by Lou Contey
through November 8th (buy tickets)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

cottonpatch I hadn’t seen Provision Theater Company’s 2004 Jeff-nominated production of Cotton Patch Gospel, so I couldn’t possibly compare it to their current remounting to inaugurate their new, larger theater space. “Nothing brings out Baptists like a new building,” quips Timothy Gregory, in his role as lead storyteller. That applies as much to the new beginnings for Provision as it does for the characters in the show.

Cotton Patch Gospel emerges from American Bible-Belt culture. With music composed by Harry Chapin, performer of the Grammy-nominated “Cat’s In the Cradle,” and book adapted from Clarence Jordan by Tom Key and Russell Treyz, Cotton Patch Gospel shifts the Gospels of Matthew and John to mid-twentieth century Georgia. Replete with in-jokes for the Southern church-going crowd, it would be narrow in its range of appeal but for the music and lyrics, which evoke the greatest power to unite audiences.

In which case, thank God for a tight band, a swinging chorus, and the light grace and energy with which Gregory reprises his original role. They are the loving spoonful that broadens this show’s message beyond churchy limitations. While the story and lyrics contemporize the sociopolitical religious struggles of the Gospels, the audience becomes awakened to the power plays, hypocrisies, and betrayals that plague humanity’s struggle for justice, community, and the search for spiritual authenticity.

This show owes no small amount of its success to Gregory’s ability to morph from, not only Jesus into his apostles, but also into the darker roles of Herod, (Governor) Pontius Pilate, and a mercenary mega-church preacher. It’s in these momentary roles that Gregory’s aspect takes on shades of George W. Bush and the evangelicals that grace our television screens. He and the his musical team make the most of lyrics that knowingly describe the rationales for the abuse of power and a populace’s collusion with that power.

The production reaches its pinnacle, though, when it successfully depicts Jesus’ own reluctance and anguish at going through the betrayal and death that is coming for him. Likewise, the band and chorus reach a simple yet profound high point in their expression of loss and confusion over Jesus’ death. The resurrection is the joyful relief to this sorrow, but it is precisely these deepest moments of grief that unite the audience in its common humanity.

Provision Theater’s 2004 production was often compared and contrasted with Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Cotton Patch Gospel was praised for its kinder, gentler telling of the Jesus story. But I think that simplistic comparison misses the mark. In Gibson’s work we are shocked into fixating on the suffering of Jesus in its gross and uncommon brutality; with Cotton Patch Gospel, we become more aware of all our suffering through Jesus. It is this element that gives this religiously based work more redemptive power and ensures it a more enduring place.

Rating: «««½

 

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