First Stage’s Best Christmas Pageant Ever

By - Dec 2nd, 2009 11:26 am
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First Stage Children’s Theater’s The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, adapted from Barbara Robinson’s 1972 novel, is one of those rare productions that adults and youngsters can really enjoy together. It affectionately captures the angst of the season suffered by both age groups: the pressure to be the best parent volunteer ever and the little daily dramas suffered by the youngsters preparing for the pageant.

Jessica Surprenant (center, as Imogene Herdman) and cast.  Photo by Mark Frohna.

Jessica Surprenant (center, as Imogene Herdman) and cast. Photo by Mark Frohna.

The fierce and anarchic Herdman kids strike sparks in this holiday tinderbox. The sole purpose in life of the six siblings seems to be shaking down peers for lunches and creating a general ruckus. Spurred by the promise of free snacks, they descend upon the orderly world of the community church and bully their way into lead roles. This year’s Christmas Pageant will be a very different and somewhat scary experience for both adults and kids.

Thanks to the mostly calming presence of mom-turned-director Grace Bradley, played with naturalistic aplomb by Mary MacDonald Kerr, the Herdmans learn what the Christmas story is all about. Everyone else does, too.

The 1980s theme of this production could have been overplayed to the point of distraction. It wasn’t, though the Jane Fonda exercise manual, the drop-waist dresses and the Merlin game are hard to miss. More subtle are the Garfield mugs and even some obscure musical references (“gunter glieben glauten globen,” anyone?). Even the incorporation of some classic ’80s dance moves — the shepherds’ steps come from Michael Jackson’s Thriller — came off as delightfully geeky rather than calculated nostalgia.

Despite the colorful array of leggings and loud sweaters, the charm of the story rings true. It was evident that the young actors on stage were truly enjoying themselves, and the “church pageant” device accommodates a wide range of ages as shepherds, angels, wise men and members of the Holy Family.

First stage is rotating two casts in this show, which runs through Dec. 24 at Marcus Center Todd Wehr Theater. The Herdmans I saw formed their own little ensemble as a believably dysfunctional yet united family. Annie Gonring as the young narrator, Beth Bradley, told her story clearly and captured the barely restrained suffering of a pre-teen whose mother is constantly on the verge of embarrassing her.

Molly Rhode (far right) and cast. Photo by Mark Frohna.

Molly Rhode (far right) and cast. Photo by Mark Frohna.

Other standouts in the adult cast include the always-wonderful Angela Ianonne as the bedridden Mrs. Armstrong (who doesn’t surrender her pageant-direction duties easily), the living definition of the all-involved church lady. And in what was one of the most engaging parts of the performance, Molly Rhode as the aerobicizing, ever-volunteering Mrs. McCarthy, led the audience-turned-congregation in a giddy Christmas singalong that was the icing on the cookie.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever delivers everything a family could wish for this season: multigenerational humor, great lines, enthusiastic performances, touching moments and a message of acceptance and understanding — even for those who might steal the treats out of our lunchboxes.

For ticket information about The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, which runs through Christmas Eve, visit this page or call the Marcus Center Box Office at 414-273-7206.

Categories: Theater

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