by Matthew Falduto
Marion – There are many Christmas shows, and some are riskier than others. Most Christmas shows have a single child as the main focus – The Christmas Story has Ralphie, Miracle on 34th Street has Susan, etc. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, adapted from the book by Barbara Robinson, features a large cast of children, who are asked to actually do quite a bit of acting. This creates risk for a theater company – resting the success of your show on the shoulders of kids can mean some deep breaths and perhaps a Hail Mary or two for the producers. Fortunately, Giving Tree Theater director Emma Drtina has found some very talented kids to carry their production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. The Christmas Pageant is infiltrated by the “bad kids” – the Herdmans – who are dirty and bullies and don’t know the Christmas story at all. They end up in the pageant because new director Grace Bradley can’t say no. The ladies of the town are sure it’ll be the worst pageant ever. As you might expect, the ladies are wrong.
Narrating the show is pre-teen Beth Bradley, played with pluck and charm by Rachel Dunnwald. Dunnwald has to carry the exposition of the story, which she does very well, adding much to the humor of the show with her smart delivery. Playing her little brother, Charlie, Ben Quinn-Sovers is a bit of a scene stealer, using his expressive face and smart line readings to much success.
Representing the kids’ reaction to the Herdmans is Zoey Akers as Alice Wendelken, who is always cast as Mary in the pageant… until the Herdmans arrived, of course. Akers is great as the stuck up, judgmental Alice. She has a wonderful stage presence.
The two main adult actors are the parents of Beth and Charlie – Grace and Bob Bradley, played by Heather Akers and Brian Smith. Akers does a great job as the put upon Grace, as she juggles both challenging children and challenging adults. As Bob, Smith is fun to watch, perfectly embodying the suburban dad, right down to the dad ‘stache.
And then we have the Herdmans – Ralph, Imogene, Leroy, Claude, Ollie and Gladys played by Harrison Akers, Brodi Nelson, Alex Slingluff, Carter Waelchli, Carter Neef and Avery Moomey. All are great, but the two stand outs are Nelson and Moomey as Imogene and Gladys. Moomey is a scene stealer as the irrepressible Gladys. “Shazam!” she shouts as she portrays the Angel of the Lord. She is a joy to watch.
But this show really rests on the character of Imogene. If we don’t see her change from frustratingly obnoxious kid to a kid who understands what it means to portray Mary, the mother of God, it all falls apart. Fortunately, Nelson is more than up to the task. She’s fantastic when she’s belligerent and threatening, tossing the doll that’s standing in for baby Jesus around without any understanding of who that baby represents. But when Grace commands her to “Remember you’re holding the baby Jesus!”, we see a change in Nelson’s entire character. Her face softens and she begins to lovingly hold the baby as tears well up in her eyes. Kudos to Nelson for a strong performance.
There were a few issues with lighting and sound on opening night, but all felt like the sort of thing that will get fixed in future performances.
If you’re looking for a delightful Christmas play to take your kids to, this is the one. Comfy chairs, excellent acting, and heartwarming tale – The Best Christmas Pageant Ever has it all. The show runs through December 13, but the website tells me it is already sold out! Perhaps they’ll add some performances? Let’s hope so!