By Pat Robbennolt
Laughter rang out in the Adventure Theater of the Cumberland County Playhouse as Sanders Family Christmas returned to the stage. Jason Ross and Patty Payne are back in their accustomed roles. We can begin to look toward Christmas. Some things are the same: It is December 24, 1941. Young Dennis Sanders is to head off to boot camp the day after Christmas
Ross plays Rev. Mervin Oglethorpe, pastor of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Mount Pleasant, North Carolina. He milks the role for all it is worth with the roll of his eyes or his response to being bested in biblical quotations.
Patty Payne, the maiden aunt of the Sanders family, remarks she can’t sing, but should there be a deaf audience member, she signs. Her level of activity in signing reaches new heights in this production. Uttering few words, she manages to frequently steal the show. June is still waiting on Mervin hand and foot, or rather muffler and boot.
Ross and Payne have played their roles for years. Yet they manage to make subtle additions to each of their interpretations. Their growing romantic interest is hilarious to watch. Then, there is the proposal. You will not want to miss that! Do order your tickets.
The multi-talented Douglas Waterbury-Tieman plays the role of Dennis, adding his considerable skills on the violin to enrich this musical family. Old-timers among us remember when Daniel Black was the boy twin. Black has morphed into the role of father Burl Sanders. He serves with Lauren Marshall as co-director of the show. Talk about growing up on stage…. Black has matured as both actor and director.
We first saw Waterbury-Tieman as Fred Astaire in Backwards in High Heels. In that show, we admired his dancing skills as well as his ability to act a rather formal part. However, as he played one of the on-stage musicians in Golden Boy of the Blue Ridge, we became aware of his artistry as a fiddler. I hope you have seen Big River with his interpretation of Tom Sawyer. Now, we celebrate his presence with us in yet another role central to a show. Early in the show, as Dennis, he receives restraint from his uncle who sees his singing as overly exuberant. Waterbury-Tieman has Dennis age and deepen as Sanders Family Christmas continues. He is both the young man ready to serve his country and the child struggling to bid his mother good-bye. Dennis is movingly presented.
John Dobbratz appears in the role of Stanley Sanders, ex-con turned Hollywood singing star. Like Waterbury-Tieman, he brought his musical skills to Golden Boy of the Blue Ridge. He is part of Huck and Tom’s teen gang in Big River. He has a fine singing
Voice, sharing with other cast members the impressive ability to play a variety of instruments. He shifts seamlessly from bass viol to ukulele or guitar. Dobbratz’ telling of the story of the straw watch eaten by a passing burro hits a painful nerve as he admits learning the hard way that one jackass stunt can ruin a lifetime of work.
Emily Woods brings us Denise, the girl twin, full of assurance that she is now a mature young woman. She is agonizing over her brother’s upcoming departure and eager to do her part in the war effort. The level of punishment meted out by her mother and aunt hints that this is not the first time they have been caught off guard by one of Denise’s schemes to be of service in a unique way. Her response to their reaction is far from the maturity she has sought to project. Well done, Emily Woods.
Lauren Marshall and Daniel Black are paired as co-directors and as parents of the twins. Marshall has given musical shading to each of the twenty-four songs whether as an accomplished pianist or masterful violinist or with the use of her fine voice. She can belt-out a song at appropriate moments. Yet, her rendition of “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem” was magnificently moving. Black has directed novel actions and interaction among this cast that bring moments of uniqueness. In his role as Burl Sanders, Black gave a powerful telling of the story of his relationship with fellow recruit Wesley. In this season of Christmas and economic difficulties, it is well to be reminded that wealth does not solve all problems, especially if you can drive a tractor.
The musical skills, on a wide variety of instruments and their vocal abilities are key to Sanders Family Christmas. The family may be dealing with the departure of Dennis and the threat of war coming close to home, yet their voices blend in joy, in praise, and in hope. They will bring a worthy addition to any family Christmas preparation right here on the Cumberland Plateau. You, your friends, neighbors and children will be glad to have shared a few hours with the Sanders.