For those who have never read Barbara Robinson's book or have never enjoyed any of its stage or television adaptations, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is the quintessential timeless classic which often resonates with audiences hungry for holiday-themed entertainment. First published in 1971 and now enjoying its 45th anniversary, Robinson's story of "the worst kids in the world" unexpectedly participating in a church's annual Christmas pageant is both funny and touching, striking a familiar chord in any era.
Typically portrayed in a contemporary setting, the current staging of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Fort Wayne Youtheatre has an interesting twist. The decision to set the story in 1943 was a practical one, dictated by the sharing of the First Presbyterian Theater while FPT is currently staging It's a Wonderful Life. Making Pageant a period piece arguably only improves upon it. If there's anything holiday revelers enjoy more than a good Christmas story, it's one steeped in nostalgia and the sense of innocence a bygone era invokes. Rambunctious - even obnoxious - children seem less malevolent when presented in the past, perhaps because we all assume everyone has survived their abuse relatively unscathed.
In fact, audiences who particularly enjoy A Christmas Story will find much familiar and comforting in Youtheatre's holiday production. The primary twist here (spoiler alert!) is that the Herdman hellions, the six urchins who invade the pageant, quickly evolve from brats to underdogs, making them the real heart of the story. The more pious children, particularly the scolding Alice (played to snippy perfection by Sophia Bell), are the ones most audience members will want to silence, as the Herdmans, particularly Imogene, come to understand and in turn exemplify the meaning of Christmas.
Christopher Murphy's direction is excellent, and Youtheatre is obviously teaching their students well, since a cast filled with young performers could easily descend into an hour-plus of preciousness and mugging. But that is never the case with this cast, which handles itself beautifully and captures both the characterizations and the WWII era perfectly.
Murphy's director's notes share an interesting casting twist, revealing that Kimi Holmes-Eckman, who plays the mother unexpectedly plunged into the role of pageant director, previously played that character's daughter in Murphy's previous productions of Pageant. And Janet Piercy, who now plays the pesky pageant director sidelined by a broken leg, played the key role now played by Holmes-Eckman. Their long connection to Pageant is evident, and both make the most out of their new roles. Holmes-Eckman is quietly nurturing to all of the children, even the feisty Herdmans, while Piercy brings great humor with her portrayal of the busybody Mrs. Armstrong. But perhaps the most moving performance is that of Margaret Gaughan, whose portrayal of Imogene Herdman, who turns the pageant on its head by volunteering to play Mary, demonstrates both spunk and spirit in the role and truly gives Pageant its heart.
At just over an hour and presented in one act, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is an excellent introduction for young audiences, but its timeless message is perfectly suited to all ages.