As darling as children are to their parents and grandparents, too often children's theater is just barely bearable. Fortunately, fans of Barbara Robinson's children's book, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, will thoroughly enjoy Charleston Stage's production at the Dock Street Theatre. First published in 1972, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever continues as a favorite for young readers, and remains a nostalgic favorite for those adults who remember meeting the Herdmans and Bradleys years ago. The story is also a favorite lesson plan for teachers when their students, jacked up on candy and cupcakes, are bursting with excitement about the impending Christmas holiday. Adapted for the stage by the author, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever gives cast, crew, and audience members a refreshingly humorous and compassionate theatrical experience for the Christmas season.
The script is nearly verbatim to the book, maintaining Robinson's warm humor and compassionate story-telling. "The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and set fire to Fred Shoemaker's old broken-down tool house," narrator Beth Bradley (Patsy Newitt) says of the little tyrants. As a classmate of Imogene Herdman (Sarah Grace Cuthbert), Beth knows of which she speaks. With Mr. Herdman's abandonment of his family and Mrs. Herdman working double shifts, the Herdman children raise themselves, a soft sociological commentary by Robinson, but the script avoids any serious discussion and focuses on the Christmas pageant and the lessons learned by all involved.
The Bradley family acts as a moral compass to the story. Bob (Josh Harris) and Grace Bradley (Jillian Kuhl) are kind, church-going, average folk, raising their children, Beth and Charlie (Harrison Reed), to be the same, which is difficult at times, because both children really just want to avoid conflict with the bully Herdmans. When the time comes, the Bradleys live up to the aphorism that everybody deserves a chance — even the Herdmans.
Grace finds herself in charge of the perennial Christmas pageant when the stalwart director Helen Armstrong (Vanessa Moyen) breaks her leg and is laid up in traction. Helen gives Grace all her tips and suggestions for a successful pageant and all is set, until Charlie regrettably tells Leroy Herdman that they get sweet treats in Sunday school and cake at the Christmas pageant rehearsal. The chaos ensues as the Herdman children invade Grace Bradley's Christmas pageant rehearsal. When the naysayers proclaim this to be the worse Christmas pageant ever, Grace becomes determined to make it the best Christmas pageant ever. After all, everybody deserves a chance, she says. But, even Rev. Hopkins (Gabriel Wright) is dubious. "Jesus said, 'Suffer the little children to come unto me,' but I don't think he meant the Herdmans!"
Out of the chaos created by the Herdmans and their intimidation of their classmates, and their reinterpretation of the Nativity as "Revenge at Bethlehem" because King Herod needs to be taken down, emerges a fresh new perspective of the Christmas story. The children express a sense of injustice that Joseph and Mary were not allowed to sleep in a bed in the inn and Baby Jesus had to sleep in a animal trough, like they were refugees. "Where was child welfare?" one asks with indignation. "Child welfare is at our house every five minutes!" another exclaims. Imogene blames Joseph for not providing better lodgings, "because Mary was pregnant and everything." The pinnacle of the Christmas pageant comes as the humanity of the Nativity is revealed through the most unlikely of characters, Imogene.
Director Marybeth Clark manages a cast of 25, highlighted by the talented leads Newitt, Reed, Harris, and Kuhl as the Bradley family. Cuthbert shows a breadth of talent as Imogene experiences a transformation. The entire cast is energetic and sharp with their lines. Some of the children are more comfortable in their roles than others, who exhibit awkward posturing, use poor enunciation, and barely refrain from nervously laughing. As feisty little Gladys Herdman, Sarah Catherine Gillard revels in her role as the angel Gabriel, ushering the shepherds to Bethlehem to save them time wandering around looking at stars.
Julian Wiles' set design is thematically simple and fitting with the set and props shaped out of large, lined paper with crude children's writing and drawings. When it comes time for the Christmas pageant performance, a beautiful skyline and cityscape of Bethlehem at sunset drops down as the white wash transitions to a glowing mix of amber.
The Mean Girls-styled costumes seem a bit too mature for this age group, but the Herdmans get the best hodgepodge of torn, plaid flannel shirts and camouflage. The sweet comedy of the three wise men proceeding down the aisle wearing crowns made of Maxwell House coffee cans is endearing.
Robinson's tale is a lovable story, because the Herdmans teach the church-going townspeople a lesson about giving and how, once given a chance, even they come to understand the meaning of Christmas.