WEST JORDAN — One of my favorite childhood Christmas traditions read curling up in my pajamas as my mother read Barbara Robinson‘s book, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. It’s the story of a small town Christmas pageant that gets hijacked when a family of bullies forcibly take all the most important roles: Mary, Joseph, the three wise men, and the angel of the Lord. Adapted for the stage by Robinson, the Sugar Factory Playhouse and West Jordan Theater Arts’ production delivers the same portions of hijinks and nostalgia I remembered from the book, plus all the quaint holiday cheer community theater has to offer.
The play opened festively as a choir made up of the entire cast performed a set of Christmas carols (directed by Petronella Oliver, accompanied by Cheryl Nielsen). Ranging from jolly to reverent, the choir infused each song with the appropriate energy. Cast members of all ages took solos and broke into parts for different songs, giving the caroling a cozy, homey feel.
The play then opened with narration by lead character Beth Bradley (played by Brienna Michaelis) explaining how her mother (played by MeriLynne Michaelis) ended up directing the annual Christmas pageant after the usual director wound up in the hospital with a broken leg.
The script preserved all the wittiest lines from the book as narration and all the funniest situations into scenes acted out by the rest of the cast. This meant Brienne Michaelis was often on stage alone, or narrating while other characters acted out a scene— and she exhibited impressive stage confidence and personality in her role.
As if Mrs. Bradley doesn’t have enough on her hands convincing her husband (Mike Muren) to even attend the pageant, which he refuses to do until he learns that his bathrobe will play the lead as the robe worn by their son Charlie (Jonathan Young) in the role of a shepherd—and corralling a few dozen children to behave on stage, her task gets even more daunting when the Herdmans show up for auditions.
The Herdmans are the archetypal bullies. The run rampant and unsupervised, wreaking havoc on every teacher and child to cross their paths. They come to church for the refreshments and help themselves to the sacramental wine and donation money. But they also have a penchant for the stage, and a few threats of violence win them all the lead roles in the pageant.
The story is both hilarious and heartwarming. Even after the Herdmans set off the fire alarm by smoking cigars in the church bathroom, Mrs. Bradley reminds her children that Joseph and Mary would have been hungry and dirty after their journey, just like Ralph and Imogene Herdman (Jaron Michaelis and Cora Stone). In two touching scenes, Brienna Michaelis and Cora Stone each sang beautiful solo verses of “What Child Is This?” as each character, in her separate way, begins to understand the true significance of the Christmas story.
On the night of the pageant, the cast still hasn’t made it through the entire script, a doll has to be used in the place of Jesus because no one will trust Imogene with a real baby, and all the church ladies are poised to spend the rest of their lives gossiping about the worst Christmas pageant ever. But the Herdmans have a few tricks up their sleeves that prove everyone wrong. Ralph Herdman plays a diligent Joseph after Imogene gives him a threatening glare and begins to rock her doll as gently as though it were a real baby. In the role of the Angel of the Lord, Gladys Herdman (Cecelia Johnson) can’t hold in her excitement as she exclaims to the shepherds, “Hey! Hey! Unto you a child is born!” And the Three Wise Men, played by three more Herdmans (Ian Hadlock, Jake Hale, Jacob Hyde), exemplify true generosity when they give not just frankincense and myrrh, but also the Christmas ham from their family’s welfare basket.
For me, this play embodies the true spirit of Christmas. The community discovers that there’s more to Christmas than their traditions, however well-intended, when the Herdman family experiences the Christmas story for the first time. No matter how many times I’ve read the book The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, I still cry every time. The spirit of the book was captured perfectly by this play, as little children wandered on and off stage and families joined together to make up the cast. Without even knowing what Sugar Factory Playhouse & West Jordan Theater Arts will perform next year, I can guarantee that I’ll be there, front row, wiping away tears at how perfectly they capture the Spirit of Christmas.