Northlight Theatre

Goodman Theatre’s A Christmas Carol may have Bob Cratchit and his brood trilling “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” and The Sound of Music at Marriott’s Lincolnshire Theatre might have the Trapp Family Singers warbling “Do Re Mi” and “Edelweiss” before they hightail it across the Alps. But for family music making this holiday season nothing beats the Sanders clan, the stars of Northlight Theatre’s lovely, funny tribute to country music, Smoke on the Mountain. The Sanctified Sanders Singers is the name they go by, but don’t let the alliterative monicker fool you: they’re just plain folks who happen to perform bluegrass gospel and inspirational soliloquies. Mervin Oglethorpe, the new Baptist preacher in the pickle-factory town of Mount Pleasant, North Carolina, ran across them at their gas-and-grocery stand down by the highway (“Pump Boys and Sermonettes” might serve as this show’s subtitle) and hired ’em on the spot as the entertainment for his first-ever Saturday night songfest–a mighty important occasion, if somewhat risky. Music in church on a Saturday night sounds heathen to some, but Reverend Oglethorpe’s determined to prove you can be a Baptist and modern.

After all, it is 1938, the same year that a real-life southeastern singing family, the Carters, headed west to Texas to perform on Mexican-border radio stations. Though the Sanderses’ spokespersons, daddy Burl and mother Vera, don’t mention that–why plug the competition?–clearly they’re poised to take over from their more famous predecessors with a musically polished inspirational program of song and sermon. But the road to righteousness is a rocky one. In this loopy, likable musical comedy, written by Connie Ray from a concept by Alan Bailey, the Sanderses strive for higher ground and attain it when they sing. But they can’t avoid comic conflict the rest of the time.

For starters, pastor Oglethorpe keeps interrupting their concert with a variety of announcements–births, deaths, baptisms (“Bring shoes you can wear down to the creek”), a plea for parishioners to spread their used coffee grounds around the church garden to help save the azaleas, and the inevitable fund-raising pitch. Oglethorpe has to keep one eye on the spirit and the other on the bank account–which is why he’s appalled when in the middle of the Sanderses’ big number, “I’ll Live a Million Years,” they start to (gasp!) dance. “Matthew 11:16: “But where unto shall I liken this generation? We have piped unto you and ye have not danced,’ ” Oglethorpe proclaims, using scripture to chastise the errant entertainers. But the family’s got a comeback: “Psalms 149:3: “Let them praise his name with dancing and make music unto him with tambourine and harp.’ ” An autoharp will do.

Oglethorpe’s older, more conservative parishioners aren’t the only problem the Sanderses have to contend with; they have their share of faults too. June–that’s the plain daughter–can’t sing, so they’ve got her banging out percussion on everything from tambourine to spoons to glasses of water. Then there are June’s highly creative pantomime interpretations of the lyrics. Denise, the pretty, curly-haired, fiddle-playing younger daughter, is star-struck: in a hilarious monologue she describes her disappointment at not getting cast as Scarlett during the nationwide talent search for Gone With the Wind. (She also causes quite a stir when she compares the advisers whispering in David Selznick’s ear to “the Last Supper picture.”) Dennis, Denise’s banjo-picking twin, has a calling to preach–except he gets tongue-tied in front of crowds. Burl confesses he was tempted to sell beer at his roadside store until he realized that the citified salesman was Satan in disguise. Burl’s burly brother Stanley has a hot temper–that’s what got him the 18 months’ hard labor from which he’s recently returned.

And Vera, well, she’s a mite high-strung. She’s got a real creative mind when it comes to religious allegory, she surely has: her sermon compares Christians to a June bug tied to a person’s finger with a string: “Jesus wants to run a thread from His mighty hand to the hind leg of your soul.” But she’s sorta skittish when the bug happens to get free and land on her dress; surely stompin’ that insect wasn’t how she meant her lesson to end.

Full of quirky character comedy, Smoke on the Mountain is also packed with traditional and not-so-traditional tunes–with titles like “The Church in the Wildwood,” “Christian Cowboy,” and “I’ll Never Die (I’ll Just Change My Address).” Arranged by Mike Craver of the Red Clay Ramblers and Pump Boys and Dinettes veteran Mark Hardwick (they’re the team behind the hilarious Oil City Symphony), the lovely, rousing score brims with glorious, confident gospel harmony. The singers also hold forth on guitar, bass, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, and autoharp, blending beautifully under Malcolm Ruhl’s reliable musical leadership, and they bring personality and wit to their characterizations under director Russell Vandenbroucke’s guidance.

Maggie LaMee is tough, tender, and slightly addled as Vera, the feisty mother lioness; and Kevin Gudahl, best known as an actor of classical resonance, is a surprisingly simple Burl, a proud man trying to keep his family together through strict scriptural adherence. Dawn Bach and Edward Lloyd Pierce are perfect as the discreetly rivalrous twins Denise and Dennis; Sarah E. Underwood brings out the bitterness underlying June’s dutiful acceptance of her second-class status in the family; and Dallas Wayne, a veteran of the Special Consensus bluegrass band, is a natural as the tormented, temperamental Stanley–his plaintive baritone makes the songs “Meet Mother in the Skies” and “Everyone Home But Me” the evening’s musical high points. Marty Higginbotham is quite funny as the conscientiously “progressive” preacher, anxiously trying to steer the show while keeping faith with his flock; and Nanette M. Acosta’s period costumes and Kevin Snow’s lovingly detailed country-church setting add greatly to this evocatively textured production.

Some of the finest moments in Chicago’s musical scene in the mid-1970s were produced by pianist Brian Lasser, the accompanist and songwriter for cult-favorite chanteuse Karen Mason when the duo performed at such venues as Le Pub, Orphans, and the Park West. Lasser’s sensitive, sophisticated originals and innovative, elaborate arrangements of standards were high-quality additions to the city’s cultural scene before he and Mason headed off to New York, where he eventually ended up making his mark as musical director for off-Broadway and cabaret shows. Lasser died last Friday after a long and brave battle with AIDS; he was a superb musician, and a good guy, and he will be much missed.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.