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: The Philanderer (ShawChicago)

A no-frills sophisticated comedy

 shawlogo

ShawChicago presents:

The Philanderer

Written by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by
Robert Scogin
Ruth Page Theatre (1016 N. Dearborn)
Thru March 1st (more info)

By Katy Walsh

Leonard wants to marry Grace as a way to finally break-up with Julia. Although this sounds like the plot of the next Hugh Grant romantic comedy, it’s not. ShawChicago presents The Philanderer, a play written by George Bernard Shaw in 1893. Unlike many contemporary movies, The Philanderer is a sophisticated comedy with many layers of humor. On one level, the love affairs are discussed with polite sensibilities. Whether it’s the prudish time period or British formality, love is an unemotional state. Another dimension of absurdity is the Ibsen Club. Most of Shaw’s characters are members of this new-age association requiring members to denounce being a “womanly woman” or “manly man” to generate true equality of the sexes. The club’s premise must have been shockingly hilarious at the turn of the century. Even in modern times, it’s still funny. Encouraged by the young men, women are smoking and drinking in the “old boys club” and it’s freaking their fathers out.

With the tradition of producing shows more like readings, ShawChicago stages The Philanderer without scenery, costumes or other design elements, thus relying heavily on the talents of its playwright and its cast to stimulate the audience. And this talented cast delivers, providing brilliant dialogue with British wit.

Lydia Berger is outstanding as Julia Craven. Berger scores the emotional character and plays it out to the maximum. Very much a “womanly woman”, Julia’s club membership is threatened by her tendency to resort to crying to manipulate men. Berger is hilarious in her struggle to be less womanly. Kevin Christopher Fox is the philanderer, Leonard Charteris. Fox amuses as the nonchalant playboy. Without any hint of self deprecation, Fox states he’s not gallant, handsome or well-dressed. In a very matter of fact manner, Fox takes no responsibility regarding why women keep falling in love with him. Making a smaller role memorable, Richard Marlatt has a ludicrous melt-down as the bumbling physician, Dr. Paramore. Even though the show is auditory, as Col. Craven, Skip Lundby looks very natural saying words like “vexed” and “confounded.” Despite the presence of the script, most of the cast have memorized their lines. On occasion, when an actor resorts to actually reading, there is stammering.

Throughout, ShawChicago showcases its namesake George Bernard Shaw with The PhilandererWithout the distraction of movement on a stark stage, Shaw’s words are the focus. With clever twists and entertaining banter, Shaw wittingly promotes his social agendas of the time period still relevant a century later: feminism, casual sex, animal testing, medical research, and vegetarianism.

CRAVEN: … How jolly it must be to be able to go to the theatre for nothing! I must ask him to get me a few tickets occasionally. But isn’t it ridiculous for a man to talk like that! I’m hanged if he doesn’t take what he sees on the stage quite seriously.

CHARTERIS: Of course: that’s why he’s a good critic. Besides, if you take people seriously off the stage, why shouldn’t you take them seriously on it, where they’re under some sort of decent restraint?      *Act I: The Philanderer

 

Rating: ★★★