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The setting for the story is Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church in 1941, where the Sanders Family gospel group is gathering for one last show before young fiddle player Dennis Sanders (played by Andrew Crowe) heads off to boot camp.
The witnessing is at times sad, brave, boisterous and hopeful -- fitting for such an occasion -- as each member of the family expresses their fears, motives and aspirations at a turning point in their lives.
But there's no danger of the show becoming mired in melancholy. Frequent comic relief from characters June Sanders and the Rev. Mervin Oglethorp provides a delightful balance with the otherwise sentimental sensibility of the play.
As always, it's the family's charming oddball, June, who gets the most laughs.
"The Lord did not bless Miss June with a voice like her kin," the Rev. Oglethorpe (played by Director David Hemsley Caldwell) notes.
"I don't sing. I sign," she said.
Her signing is delivered with such awkward earnestness that even simple signs like "evil" (the devil's horns version) gets a laugh.
The last time "Sanders Family Christmas" was performed at the Lyceum, in 2001, audience favorite Christa Germanson played June, as she did in a Lyceum production of the original "Smoke on the Water" a few years previously. The review by Chris Post at the time said Germanson stole the show.
In the most recent Sanders Family show at the Lyceum, "Smoke on the Mountain Homecoming," it was Leslie Lorusso as June who stole the show.
But Morris did a fine job -- not outdoing Germanson or Lorusso necessarily, but putting her own stamp on the delightful part. She was convincing as a somewhat neglected but essential part of the family. She's the caretaker who performs her unglamorous duties (collecting coats, playing spoons, being decorated with garland like a Christmas tree) with dedication and mostly good humor.
It's worth noting that the part is a demanding one. June is considered "unmusical" and is therefore assigned to play the various and miscellaneous percussion instruments. In this production, she plays more than a dozen, from spoons to coconut shells to bells. The irony, of course, is that June turns out to be as musical as her crooning, guitar-picking family members.
To play such a variety of instruments well -- and often in rapid succession -- requires a good deal of musical skill, but she also has to appear to be in slightly over her head with each instrument. She always looks as if she's a half step behind the beat and struggling to catch up. To play so well but look a bit awkward can't be easy, but Morris pulls it off beautifully.
As a bonus, Morris is surrounded by fine multi-instrumentalists. Crowe is the family fiddler, but he takes turns on mandolin and bass. Eric Scott Anthony, who plays Burl Sanders, is primarily a guitarist, but he takes a turn or two on mandolin. Steve Isom, who plays Stanley Sanders, plays upright bass and guitar.
They sing pretty well, too.
Add the wonderful voices of Marcy McGuigan as Vera Sanders and Sharon Malane as Denise Sanders and the cast delivers some joyful gospel harmonies that evoke the nostalgic feels many people crave as the holidays approach.
Lyceum's 'Sanders Family Christmas' a moving performance
'Smoke on the Mountain Homecoming' brings charming stories, nostalgia and the energy of gospel music to the Arrow Rock Lyceum stage