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The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (2011)

a Holiday Special
CATEGORY :
by Barbara Robinson

COMPANY : Synchronicity Performance Group [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Balzer Theatre @ Herren's [WEBSITE]
ID# 4197

SHOWING : December 10, 2011 - January 01, 2012

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PRODUCTION DESCRIPTION

The Herdmans are absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. But when rumors of free snacks lure them into church one Sunday afternoon, they inadvertently take over the annual Christmas pageant. The delightful chaos that ensues teaches everyone the true reason for the season. You’ll never think of the three wise men or Christmas ham again.


CAST & CREW LIST
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REVIEWS

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Greater Expectations
by Dedalus
Monday, January 23, 2012
5.0
“The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world.”

Thus begins Barbara Robinson’s 1972 getting-to-be-a-classic book (and play), “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.” Indeed, is there a place in the country where there aren’t several productions on local stages every year? I’ve done lights for three different productions over the years, my daughter has played in three, and my own spouse directed a one-night-only production at her church last year and a longer-run production with Cartersville’s Pumphouse Players earlier this month.

So, I daresay, my expectations last year were at an ambivalent level – I’ve always been impressed with Synchronicity’s programming for younger audiences (“Junie B Jones,” “Bunnicula,” and “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” were some favorites), but I was afraid of having a “been-there seen-that” experience with this one. I was delightfully surprised with the 2010 production (even titling my review “The Tyranny of Low Expectations).

This year, they’ve restaged the production (with most of the same cast), and my enjoyment was even greater This show is a lively wallow in kid-friendly cheer, an energetic revisit to a story that is in danger of being over-told, and a top-notch production that reminded me of why this is a favorite of theatres everywhere.

In case you’ve avoided it over the years, the story is told by Beth Bradley, whose mother has been tapped to spearhead this year’s Christmas Pageant. Into the normal bedlam of a church pageant storm the Herdmans, a rag-tag collection of kids “from the other side of the tracks,” who “lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker’s old broken-down toolhouse.” No one expects anything from these kids except Mrs. Bradley, and disaster looms as the holiday nears.

This is one of those stories about how kids respond to what’s expected of them, how if you expect them to be mean they WILL be mean, how if you expect them to feel some Christmas spirit and give them the opportunity, they may just rise to the occasion. It’s story that, for me, doesn’t get old, and which moves me even as it makes me cringe at the antics of the “bad” kids.

Starting off with a clever and energetically sung “curtain speech,” the show dives right into the story, keeping it at a brisk hour length. The cast is pitch-perfect with Maureen Yasko and John Stewart bringing to the Bradleys a level of comfort and familiarity that rang true. Sarah Elizabeth Wallis (as Beth) handles her narration duties like a pro, and convincingly shows us an increasing respect for the Herdman mob. And, as the Herdmans, Josh Nunn, Claire Rigsby, Marshall VandenOever, Madisyn Kenenr, Shea Jones, and Katie Keenan are all wonderful, loud and raucous one moment, quiet and reflective at another. I especially liked the moment when director Justin Anderson showed them getting ready for the pageant by helping each other with their costumes and hair, even as they’re squabbling and sniping. Specila kudos this year go to Rachel Wansker who brought a positively delightful spin to Maxine, Beth’s shy and asthmatic friend.

So, why should you see this production, when you’ve probably seen your own kids do it somewhere, sometime already? Leaving aside the pleasure of seeing it done with a professionally designed and executed set, leaving aside a well-directed and fast-paced story, leaving aside seeing marvellously talented kids tackle the roles, it is still a good story, a moving testament to the spirit of Christmas (whatever that may be), and an amusing portrait of kids who can’t help being kids. Even if they are “absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world.”

And you can’t expect more than that!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)

(On a side note, a bit of advice to anyone considering taking a child who has just done the play directed by your spouse – DON’T! I took Julia to see this, and she spent the rest of the day raving to my wife about how much ”better it was than ours – even their Gladys was better than me!” Merry Christmas, Dear!)

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