The holiday season officially gets under way this week at Thunder Bay Theatre with Friday's opening of the old-fashioned, feel-good musical, "Sanders Family Christmas."
To set the scene, it's Dec. 24, 1941, and America is going to war. So is Dennis Sanders of the Sanders Family Singers. Mervin Oglethorpe, pastor at Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church in Mt. Pleasant, N.C., and the rest of the Sanders family, hope to send Dennis off with some hilarious and touching stories, plus about 25 Southern gospel Christmas favorites.
"It's just a feel good show," said TBT Artistic Director J.R. Rodriguez. "Come, have fun and listen to some great music."
Several cast members rehearse for Friday’s opening of “Sanders Family Christmas” at Thunder Bay Theatre.
Some of Alpena's favorite local talent joins the regular TBT company on stage for the show: Greg Adamus plays Burl, the father of the musically-inclined Sanders clan, while Linda Suneson appears as his wife, Vera. Suneson also serves as musical director.
LeShawn Bell takes on the role of the pastor and Mackenzie Fountain plays the war-bound Dennis. Nickie Hilton is June Sanders, Derek Spack is Stanley Sanders and Hannah Matzke is Denise Sanders.
Behind the scenes, Spack serves as technical director and did the lighting design, Matzke designed the costumes, Hilton worked on properties and Zach Clement serves as stage manager/board operator. The company combined efforts to create the set for "Sanders Family Christmas."
The show also provides a chance for some audience participation. Viewers are made to feel like a part of the church congregation as the various Sanders family members perform a mix of popular Christmas hymns and bluegrass-inspired holiday songs.
Written by Connie Ray, with musical arrangements by John Foley and Gary Fagin, "Sanders Family Christmas" is a sequel to "Smoke on the Mountain." TBT has previously staged both shows.
Looking back over 2012 as a whole, Rodriguez has been pleased with the shows mounted this year at the theatre as well as the audience turnout and the response to what was seen on stage.
"We've had some really special things happen here this year with 'Steel Magnolias,' 'Smokey Joe's Cafe,' 'Man of La Mancha' and 'Rent,'" Rodriguez said. "But the phenonmenon that became 'Cats,' that we didn't even expect. We literally could have run 'Cats' all summer long."
Besides providing local theatre goers and visitors to the community with a warm-hearted seasonal offering, he also sees "Sanders Family Christmas" as a way to say "thank you" to TBT patrons.
"Audiences have been so great to us this year," Rodriguez said. "We want people to come to this show so that we can celebrate a little of the Christmas season with them. It's such a departure from 'Rent' and 'Cats' it's just down-home fun on Christmas eve."
At the same time, he is looking ahead to next year, which will include such shows as "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "1776."
Performances for "Sanders Family Christmas" are Nov. 23-25, Nov. 29-Dec. 2 and Dec. 6-9. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. For reservations, call the TBT box office at 354-2267.