OREM — An unexpected gem of a show is playing now on the SCERA stage: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. Audience members who would normally pass on this old chestnut should instead give this new musical adaptation a chance in its first Utah production.
Just like the non-stage version, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever tells the story of how a small town church Christmas pageant is upended when the Herdmans (the meanest kids around) want to join in. When a fire starts at the church during a rehearsal and the Herdman children disrupt the rehearsals, things come to a breaking point. But, in the end, the show turns out to be the best Christmas pageant ever.
I was leery of a musical adaptation of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever because the original stage version works well. Turning the show into a musical seems unnecessary. But I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Jahnna Beecham’s lyrics and Malcolm Hillgartner’s music. “Die, Herod, Die!” was a genuinely funny song in which the Herdman children take what they learn and use it to add some action to the nativity story. “On a Night Like This” is a quiet little song that encourages the audience to reflect on the first Christmas and on their own behavior. And I appreciated the cutesy, “Baskets for the Needy,” which moved the plot along and added some depth to the central conflict of the straitlaced congregation struggling to understand the Herdmans. Additionally, Beecham wrote the script, and while the story is familiar, there are some added jokes and added dialogue and scene structure that is less emotionally manipulative than Barbara Robinson‘s script for the non-musical version.
Michael Carrasco directed this production, and I struggle to find anything he could have done better. Carrasco’s efficient directing style suited the uncluttered plot well. Carrasco has a knack at directing child actors, and I was impressed by the nuanced performances that most young cast members produced, even if they were ensemble members. (Older children and novice actors can learn a lot about pantomiming realistically in the background by watching this show’s lunchroom scene.) Carrasco also knew how to create quiet little scenes in the play’s most touching moments, such as the pageant, to make the script’s message clear.
I adored the cast of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, and I could easily write an entire review about nearly every one. Julia Jolley brought a complexity to the character of Grace Bradley, and I appreciated how Grace grew from being easily intimidated in her dealings with Helen (played by Ramona Samuels) to having the gumption and bravery to stand up to the other parishioners to make the pageant a reality. Jolley gave Grace a gentle determination as the character decided that she was going to love and accept her neighbor unconditionally (even if her neighbor was the Herdmans).
I saw other delightful performances from Anna Kocherhans, whose portrayal of Imogene Herdman had more edge than the other Herdman children, which made her tender “On a Night Like This” show how the precepts of Christianity have the potential to deeply change a person. Stella Parry nearly stole the show as Alice, a gadfly of a child who normally gets to play Mary in the pageant and feels cheated when Imogene Herdman takes the role from her. Parry made me laugh more than once as the little know-it-all Alice caused trouble by questioning Grace Bradley’s decisions. I also appreciated the dignity that Jonathan Gustavson brought to the role of Reverend Hopkins. Gustavson’s rich voice and kind demeanor made him a perfect actor to play a preacher.
One reason I found so much to love in this cast was Brodee Ripple‘s choreography with its cycles of crisp movements. While none of the dancing was especially flashy, Ripple created stylized movements that this cast could execute with enough precision to make them look like a unified whole. I especially loved his cutesy choreography for the adult female ensemble in “Countin’ on You,” which vaguely reminded me of the doo-wop girl groups of the 1950’s. “Baskets for the Needy” was another treat in the way the movement reinforced the difference between Grace and the gossipy, judgmental women of the church.
This positive review shouldn’t imply that this production is flawless. But this is The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, a play about a play that succeeds in spite of—or perhaps because of—its flaws. So, the sort of rough edges that are common in amateur shows (the occasional sour note, a wooden line delivery, a poorly designed costume, or a low energy dancer) only contributes to the play’s aesthetic. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever would look weird as an expensive, shiny, fully professional production from a company like Pioneer Theatre Company. At the SCERA, the play is right where it belongs.
With excellent direction and choreography, plenty of heart, and a cast that I fell in love with, this show is perfect for spreading Christmas cheer. The SCERA’s production just might be the best The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, ever.