PLEASANT GROVE — The theater in the basement of the Pleasant Grove city library is perhaps the perfect place to stage The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson. It is the story of how the annual Christmas pageant in a small community church is shaken up in an unexpected way through the inclusion of the town bullies, the Herdmans, in the lead roles. The intimate little theatre feels like a church basement itself and the simple set, designed by Tina Fontana, with a pianist (Roseanna Densley) playing Christmas carols as the audience enters, is a warm and inviting start to the season.
In their directors’ note, Howard and Kathryn Little encourage the audience to look at the Christmas story with fresh eyes. Being unfamiliar with the story of the play, I was prepared for just that. However, as I perused the cast list in the digital program, I found myself wondering what kind of Christmas miracle the directors would need to manage in staging over 30 cast members, most of them children, on the small stage without overwhelming it. Somehow the miracle happened; the staging feels crowded in all the right ways. The moments of chaos as the children crisscross from one side of the stage to the other, to avoid the Herdmans is well orchestrated madness. This production could easily have slipped into subpar community theatre with the excuse of working with so many children in a script that encourages a certain amount of chaos. But it did not. It was clear that most of the chaotic moments in the production are intentional and well staged.
Given the inexperience and youth of much of the cast, there are a few moments when actors deliver lines with their backs to the audience or speak so quickly that what they are saying is unclear. But I suspect that these minor failings will improve over time. Some standouts among the younger cast are Al Sorensen as Beth Bradley, who brings enthusiasm to the narrator-type role, and Julianne Barney as Imogene Herdman who manages the character’s shift from tough teenager to a vulnerable young woman with a grace that reminds the audience that Mother Mary in the bible story was but a teenager herself. Among the adults, Brenna Brown, well cast as Grace Bradley, gives a sincere and touching performance.
Tina Fontana tackles set, costume design and properties for the production. All three elements are tasteful and appropriate to the production with some fun costuming touches, like the polka-dotted church mom brigade and Beth’s slightly awkward stripes and plaids combinations. She manages to make the Herdmans stand out just the right amount, and all the bed-sheeted angels and bath-robbed shepherds come together delightfully.
Opening night at The Best Christmas Pageant Ever had a handful of technical bumps to be cleaned up. These came mostly in transitions, such as a couple of awkwardly long scene changes, likely due to some costume changes, and a lighting transition from one of the church-lady phone scenes leaves a stray light lingering in the wrong spot. But overall, the show is tight and clean, resulting in a production that does not drag at all and lasts a scant hour long (without an intermission).
In many ways, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is similar to community theatre favorites like Noises Off!, or more recently The Play That Goes Wrong, in that the audience is invited into the messy rehearsal and performance process to witness the chaotic moments of the theatre. This theatrical format makes audiences forgiving of actual mishaps and therefore works quite well with a young cast where a forgotten line, or the jostling of shepherds crooks and stumbling up choir risers makes me wonder what is staged and what is organic.
With The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, I expected a playful and lighthearted family Christmas show to help ring in the holiday season. And it is all of that. Yet, just as the original Christmas story can become lost in the lights and goodies and surface-level brightness of the season, it sometimes takes something unexpected to remind us of the “reason for the season.” The Best Christmas Pageant Ever unexpectedly reminds its audience that the actual story behind all the shininess of Christmas is sacrifice, hardship, forgiveness and love. And so, I found myself unexpectedly moved as I saw the Christmas story anew through the eyes of the Herdman children. And that, I believe, is the Christmas miracle Robinson and PG Players intended.