CENTERVILLE — One of my favorite Christmas memories is watching an old television movie adaptation of Barbara Robinson‘s book The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. When I learned that CenterPoint Legacy Theatre was producing a stage production, I jumped at the chance to review it.
This production is directed by Wendy Inkley and shown on the Leishman black box stage. The classic story is about the awful Herdman family—a group of rude and rough kids that the entire villages hates—and the crazy things that happen when they decide to join the town Christmas pageant.
The first thing I noticed is that this is a very family friendly show. The cast is mainly made up of children, and even with an intermission, the run time was one hour and 15 minutes, so it was great for even the littlest of attention spans. It is a show set in the 1980’s or so, based upon the fun costumes designed by Shannon Page. I also enjoyed the props by Raquel Davis, such as the phones that brought me nostalgia from the pre-cell phone era of my youth.
The show is narrated by Sophie Utley in the role of Beth Bradley. Sophie has an excellent ability to portray how a child might express the events with a mix of awe and annoyance. I found myself enjoying all of her lines and wishing she had even more to say. Her mother, Grace Bradley, played by Camille Crawley, must deal with the difficult Herdman children, as well as deal with the judgments and gossips of the town. I was impressed with how she was able to convey the fact that the second challenge was just as difficult, if not more difficult, than the first.
Just as the actress was able to show that directing a large group of children is daunting, it is to be noted that Inkley had the same difficulty in directing this cast of children. There is a special art in trying to create a scene of chaos on stage while actually maintaining losing control of the cast and crew. For example, in one scene Emma Leishman (as Imogene Herdman), delivered an exquisite moment without even uttering a word. After the kids have all been running around, Grace tells Imogene to try for one day to imagine that the doll is actually the baby Jesus. Everyone leaves the stage except Leishman as Imogene, and she in silence shows love, joy, caring, and nurturing for the babe. I was proud of the cast for having that complete silence back stage, to allow a quite peace where not a sound was heard. More though, I was impressed with Leishman, and her ability to convey love and kindness without a sound. From the loud Gladys (played by Jacey Lambert) to the pious Alice (played by Brinley Fisher), the young people in this cast stole the show.
If I were to have any changes, they would have been in some technical elements such as fewer full blackouts, more simple transitions, and running the show without an intermission. At an hour and fifteen minutes with intermission, it would be feasible to have the audience experience the entire show without interruption. Additionally, there were some unnecessary silly elements, such as the piano player, Mr. Clark (played by Jeremy Botello). While his skill is absolutely evident in both acting and playing, with the chaos already in play with the children and the gossip of the town, I found myself longing for an adult to help Grace, rather than to add to the stress and distraction.
Luckily that help did come from her dear husband, Bob Bradley, played so well by Jon Moody. Growing up in a theatrical family, I know well the role of the members of the family who are not the stars nor the director, but the quite support that helps the director pull off The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. Moody’s characterization remined me of my own brother-in-law, who quietly helps my director sister behind the scenes, because he loves her, even if he would rather be sitting quietly at home.
Best of all, this show teaches a great lesson about love and acceptance. The Biblical Christmas story, as The Best Christmas Pageant Ever reminds its audience, was not about perfect looking people, but about a poor young couple who had traveled a long way and were likely tired, hungry, and dirty. It is a good look into how people might be quick to judge and slow to assist. While full of comedy, I think the kids in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever did a better job at showing the true meaning of Christmas than the adult characters. That gentle reminder message made this production connect with me in the same way the story did so many years ago on television. What a wonderful Christmas treat.