Old-timey music 

Third time continues the charm of the Sanders family saga

It's not unusual that we're seeing the third installments of the big summer movies hitting the cinemas this time of year. It's more of an oddity to see the "three-quel" to a popular stage play. Nevertheless, Mount Pleasant Homecoming marks the third and probably final installment of the "Sanders Family Trilogy" of winning musical comedies, each flavored with bluegrass gospel.

In 1992, Theatre in the Square first staged Alan Bailey's and Connie Ray's Smoke on the Mountain, which introduces the (fictional) Sanders Family Singers to the small-town Mount Pleasant Baptist Church during the Depression. Smoke on the Mountain's instant popularity became a Theatre in the Square tradition, with 11 revivals. The follow-up, Sanders Family Christmas, catches up with the characters in the midst of World War II, and Theatre in the Square has staged the show each holiday season since its 1999 debut.

Now, the world premiere of Mount Pleasant Homecoming reunites the characters at the dawn of the post-war boom and offers a sunny send-off after the melancholy mood of Sanders Family Christmas. I first saw Smoke on the Mountain in 1996, and it's been fascinating to track the shows over the years, even as the casts have changed. Eager Rev. Oglethorpe (Alan Kilpatrick) and quirky June Sanders (Jennifer Akin) met in Smoke, became engaged in Christmas and are expecting their first child in Mount Pleasant.

All three plays feature the actors singing and playing the instruments for traditional songs such as "Unclouded Day," mixed in with occasional new ones such as Pleasant's "Round-Up in the Sky," which could be a cowboy-themed spiritual novelty tune from the period. (It's a great show for fans of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.) The humor comes from the homespun yet wise "testimonial" monologues delivered by each of the Sanders in turn, along with minor bits of family tension or onstage goof-ups that occur between – and often during – the music.

The formula still works in Mount Pleasant Homecoming, partly because the gentle, cheerful comedy meshes so comfortably with the upbeat harmonizing and musicianship. Despite the bittersweet aspects of the story's reunions and departures, the material sets a tone of near-perfect joy. The cast and frequent Sanders director Dex Edwards present the play with remarkable sincerity and lack of condescension, despite the occasional cornball gag about old maids or the local pickle plant.

If you've never seen a Sanders show, the history and connections will be lost on you, but you'll have the advantage of bringing fresh eyes to running gags that are on the verge of getting stale, such as Rev. Oglethorpe and matriarch Vera Sanders (Karen Howell) one-upping each other with Bible quotes. To a Sanders veteran, however, the experience of watching the play becomes nearly identical to the action within the play. It's easy to forget that you're sitting in a small playhouse, watching characters you've known for years, and feel that you're instead in a little church, seeing the return of adopted members of the fold. Whatever your perspective, however, Mount Pleasant is a pure pleasure.

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