“The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” is a little gem of a Christmas story that has gotten a lot of mileage in community theater.
And it’s easy to see why.
The neatly wrapped plot is a fresh look at the birth of Jesus—the reason for the season, if you will. Grown-ups see the story from a new angle and the poignancy of the final scene, while kids like watching the antics of the kids on stage and can relate to many of the characters.
Michael Pocaro takes the director’s chair for Sunset’s version of the show, which has become a seasonal classic. The children in the show are divided into a Red and Green cast. We saw the Green Cast on opening night, and it was a fine cast indeed.
The story centers on six siblings, the Herdmans, whose appearance is shabby and behavior even worse. They bully kids and steal portions of their lunches. They are shunned by all.
But in steps an opportunity. When the Herdman gang shows up at a church Sunday school session (they’ve heard good treats are provided) just as the director is casting the Christmas pageant, a whole new dynamic is created for the show.
The pageant has a new director since the longtime incumbent has ended up in the hospital. Grace Bradley (Sarah Briana Monahan) is thrust into the job and finds all six Herdman kids want to be in the play. And, with a bit literal arm-twisting, they are able to get the best parts.
The Herdmans have never heard the biblical story of Jesus’s birth and question nearly every part of it. When they hear about how King Herod wanted to kill the baby Jesus, they go on a terrible rant.
“The Herdmans thought the Christmas story came right from the FBI files,” bemoans the beleaguered director.
The rehearsals are a disaster, and the church pastor and church ladies are up in arms at the prospect of these children having plum roles in the pageant.
But something almost magical happens during the unconventional pageant as the sextet helps everyone see just how relevant the Christmas story is today through their interpretation.
This is a fast-moving 90-minute show that young and old will enjoy. Rows of youngsters watching were engaged throughout, and the adults found plenty to enjoy also.
The play was adapted by Barbara Robinson from a book she had written and was first performed in 1982.
Cleverly interspersed throughout the show is the melodic singing of a barbershop quartet, humorously interpreting scenes with new lyrics to old Christmas favorites. To one familiar Christmas tune the four – John Blitz, Steve Christenson, Gene Keller and Robert A. Zimmerman – describe how a group of four church women (Julie Westphal, Leah Sawnor, Sandra Hollander and Beverly Sargent) call their friends to try to find a new director for the pageant. The women move together with their phone props in this nicely done bit.
The quartet also opened Act II, singing lovely barbershop versions of “O Holy Night” and “Holly Jolly Christmas,” followed by an audience sing-along. Everyone seemed to love it.
As Grace Bradly, the poor mom who gets stuck with this challenging group of youngsters, Monahan steers the ship nicely through choppy waters, keeping her character steady and optimistic throughout the chaos.
The Bradley children, Charlie (Casey Westphal) and Beth (Aubrey Shaw), also are appealing. Westphal engages the audience with a crisp, clear voice and good timing on his laugh lines. Shaw, who also served as a narrator, articulated well, too.
But the highlight moment belonged to Evelyn Barta, who played Imogene Herdman. As Imogene is portraying Mary during the dress rehearsal she is left alone with the baby Jesus doll on stage. It is moving to see her face soften from that of the hardened creature she has been, as a gentle light descends. Her whole body seems to turn into a blanket as she caresses the baby, mustering love she may have never known herself. That scene was the star on the fine performance tree for Barta.
Corey Klein as Reverend Hopkins delivers his talk before the pageant with tense earnestness as he anticipates what might go wrong with the pageant, giving everyone the opportunity to leave rather than stay for what the reverend thinks might be a debacle. Klein always gives his characters a most believable quality.
Perhaps the most popular performer was Zaela Schlissel as Gladys Herdman. Gladys seizes the role of the Angel of the Lord in the pageant and gives that celestial being a real superhero persona. “I love Gladys,” said the little girl sitting next to me. Indeed her spunky, take-charge character is hard not to love.
As is the case with the whole show. Down to the mustachioed Acme movers who change the set, this show is a perfect holiday centerpiece.
If you go
WHO: Sunset Playhouse
WHAT: “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever”
WHEN: Through Dec. 23
WHERE: 800 Elm Grove Road, Elm Grove