LEHI — My last two reviews for Little Mermaid and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer were at venues that are known for being as exquisite in their offerings as any in our state. They have world class talent in design, acting, directing, and the tools to make truly spectacular theatre. I loved seeing them and their quality is unmatched. But sometimes the best Christmas stories ever take place under fewer bright lights, but still shine. Despite the simple location where Lehi Arts Council’s production of the Barbara Robinson play The Best Christmas Pageant Ever was staged, the production was unforgettable and incredibly moving.
For those unfamiliar with the story (as I was) the story centers on Beth Bradley who narrates the events of a church Christmas pageant whose usual director is unable to put on the show. The obligation falls to Beth’s mother Grace, played by Camryn Blair, whose inexperience is deemed by many to be doomed to failure. This problem is exacerbated when the unruly Herdman children, who are known to curse profusely, steal and take as they please, and even smoke cigars, show up and bully the other kids into not auditioning for the parts they want. Despite what seems inevitable embarrassment for all, the production comes together and brings a powerful change upon all.
Within 5 minutes of the show starting, most viewers will know the plot. None of the technical elements were revolutionary or innovative. None of the jokes were going into my canon of ice breakers, and I couldn’t tell you the name of anyone in the cast or crew. Without star talent or resources, the show did several things so well as to be on the short list of plays I would go back to see again and again.
First, the technical transitions were very tight which is a credit to production stage manager Mark Nott. Even with children moving set pieces, it clearly had been rehearsed and refined to specific jobs and movement. The lights and sounds cut right at the ends of lines and actors waited patiently prior to the lights being restored for new scenes. What the show lacked in technical equipment it more than made up for in technique and attention to detail. I was impressed by both how thoroughly it was orchestrated, and how committed the performers and technicians were to getting it right. I also loved the kooky pigtails that included a used lollypop in the hair of Gladys, one of the Herdman children. The technical elements told this story well in every way.
Second, I thought this was a great choice of script for the venue. One of my first UTBA reviews (Off-Broadway Drowsy) was critical of a play that picked a script that was a bad fit for its stage and technical capacity. This was the opposite. Going into a venue that might seat 150 people in a community theatre setting, you want a show that engages and leaves you wanting more. It was an unabashedly Christ-centered Christmas story that has broad appeal, but that played well to its intimate setting and delivered a profound message. If I were to select an optimal stage for this play, Lehi Arts Council’s venue would be high on the list. Credit goes to the producers on their selection.
Third, while the ensemble cohesion was strong, there were also stirring individual performances. AnnaBelle Taylor whose Imogen was both a believable, angst-riddled teen who would smoke a cigar in the church bathroom while wearing a Mary costume, as well as being a profoundly sober and changed mother of the son of God. In the show’s poignant climactic scene she was patient and reverent with the doll baby that represented baby Jesus. It showcased profound range and was a stirring and reverent performance. Her performance moved me to tears, which is rare. Kyli Preston’s portrayal of Beth, as the narrator, showed profound poise and understanding of character for an actress of her age. Beth has to navigate breaking the fourth wall and responding in authentic ways to her family and both were connected. Finally, I loved watching the angel choir. Getting children who appeared as young as four to follow any direction can be akin to shepherding cats. I don’t envy the task that director Erin Jeppson faced. However, the ensemble was well-behaved, while still being children. Jeppson chose boldly in casting a large number of children across a wide age range. They clearly had been given tight direction, but the youngest children still fidgeted with costumes, pulled faces and looked
generally lost at times. I loved it, and you can’t fake that kind of genuine childlike innocence. Truly, the only casting I didn’t love was Mark Nott as Grace’s husband who read as much older than Camryn Blair. Despite Blair’s strong performance, the age gap seemed to lead to a stilted relationship, and the lack of chemistry was awkward to watch at times.
Everything that I loved and enjoyed about the more secularly focused Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer was matched in an equally faith-focused production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. The two productions couldn’t be more different in style, but both left me feeling warm and filled on a cold winter night. It might not stir everyone’s Christmas cocoa the same way, but Lehi Arts Council’s show has a chance to truly be the season’s Best Christmas Pageant.