CENTERVILLE — There is something unavoidably self-referential about The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. Watching a community theatre production of a play about producing a play that involves herding large numbers of children on and off the stage in the right combination and sequence always makes me wonder to what degree fiction and reality have coincided. Moreover, Barbara Robinson’s 1982 stage adaptation of her own 1971 book is such a fixture of the season that, in its more than thirty years of production history in community, church, and educational venues, many a parent has doubtless reacted much like Mr. Bradley in the play, asking their spouse, “Do I have to go?”
Yet go people do, and not because they have to. Patrons will need to arrive early to secure a good seat for CenterPoint Legacy Theatre’s sensible take on The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. Space is limited in the Leishman Performance Hall and seating is first-come, first-served to see the Herdmans—“the worst kids in the whole history of the world”—infiltrate the local Christmas pageant. Ralph (played by Carter Maxfield), Imogene (Kali Garrett), Leroy (TJ Anderson), Claude (Jackson Powers), Ollie (Sterling Harris), and Gladys (Sophie Utley) are notorious for lying, stealing, cussing, smoking cigars, and hitting little kids. So when they are cast as the main characters in the nativity story, from Joseph and Mary on down to the Angel of the Lord, it causes quite a stir among the members of the local congregation, especially the children.
Speaking of children, there are seventeen of them in the play. Anyone brave enough to sign on to direct a show whose cast includes more than three times the number of children as adults has earned my respect before the curtain rises. In addition, according to the program, Christmas Pageant marks Bre Welch’s directorial debut at CenterPoint, so it is nice to see her coach committed performances out of her young actors, especially the bright-eyed and engaging Natalie Nielsen as narrator Beth Bradley; Audrey Frasier as her prissy friend, Alice Wendleken; and the impish Sophie Utley as the much-feared Gladys Herdman, to whose capable powers of projection are entrusted the script’s most famous lines.
In fact, Welch appears to have commanded such respect from her cast that she may have overdone the group discipline in some scenes, making it hard for the pageant director, Grace Bradley (played by Mickey Larson), to find a believable reason for her exasperation. The choice to soften Imogene Herdman’s more irreverent exclamations, as written in the script, is a representative example of this prevalent sense of control (ironic for a play that explicitly looks for beauty in a less sanitized portrayal of the Christmas story). However, at other times, actors’ gestural rhythms or knowing glances at the audience after a successful one-liner leaked around the edges of this overabundance of good behavior, which, in the context of this particular play, actually served to provide welcome moments of authenticity.
Unfortunately, the sound cues could have learned a lesson or two from the actors’ prevailing self-restraint. For example, in an early dinner scene with the Bradley family, the background radio music from the house right speaker was so loud that it was impossible to follow their dialogue. A similar issue occurred later in a telephone conversation between Mrs. Bradley and an offstage character, whose lines were piped through the house speakers. Gladys Herdman must have been at the control board, for the volume was cranked up so high that I half-expected Mrs. Bradley to flinch and hold the receiver at arm’s length for the duration of the call.
However, at least one person in the audience was not bothered in the least by these distractions. My seven-year-old daughter was hypnotized from start to finish and sadly lamented, when the hour-long show came to an end, “Is it over already?” When I asked her what she liked most, she emphatically replied, “All of it.” From a member of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever’s target demographic, CenterPoint cannot ask for a better endorsement than that.