Written 45 years ago, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever has long been part of our annual holiday celebrations. Particularly as a stage play, the sweet and funny story captures much of what we all love about Christmas and is a traditional favorite of many. Fort Wayne's own Youtheatre made the show an annual tradition for many years, but has since pulled back, making it a less frequent piece of their annual season.
This year, however, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is back in the rotation, largely to commemorate the book's 45th anniversary. Directing is Christopher Murphy, a longtime contributor to Youtheatre and now it's full-time director of outreach. The last time Youtheatre staged Pageant was five years ago, and he's excited to bring the show back to the stage, this time at First Presbyterian's theater.
"This show is Youtheatre's version of The Nutcracker or A Christmas Carol," he says. "In fact, at one point I directed seven or eight of them in a row. I love doing this show in particular because, as busy and hectic as December is for everyone, this show always puts me in the Christmas spirit. I love watching all of those audiences coming in and responding to the show. It really warms my heart."
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is such a big part of Youtheatre's history that they're adding to the celebration by actively searching through databases and social media to reconnect with the thousands of people who have been part of previous productions. A reunion, set to take place before the December 10 matinee, is sure to make this year's effort even more special.
There will also be some special reunions taking place on the stage.
"For this particular production, as a part of the anniversary celebration, I'm revisiting some of the actors that have been involved in previous Pageant's that I've directed. Every single time Janet Piercy played the lead adult role, the director who takes over after the original director has broken her leg. This time Janet is returning as the director who breaks her leg, and the other role is being played by Kimi Holmes Eckman who in my previous productions always played the lead child role."
Murphy, who began his new position with Youtheatre in September, has spent the last five years staging and producing the Fort Wayne Philharmonic's Holiday Pops performances, and he thinks that in casting he had an objectivity which allowed him to cast a great assortment of actors of all ages.
"I think we have a great mix of Youtheatre students and people from the community," he says of a cast where the youngest performer is four years old. "I didn't know until I read their bios after I'd cast the show that it was really a mix of about 50/50 Youtheatre students and new faces. The adults are all great Fort Wayne theater vets. All of them have been very active in the area and can lead by example for the kids in the show."
The cast of 60 - which includes 20 roles which are double cast to allow the younger actors to share the load - allows Youtheatre to not only share a classic piece of holiday cheer but also provides a great education to the young actors in the show, a big part of the Youtheatre mission. While directing young children can be challenging, Murphy relishes the opportunity.
"I really am enjoying spending this much time at the holidays with this tremendous group of kids. It's really what the secular part of Christmas is all about, that joy that comes from Christmas with kids. Christmas is such a family holiday, and this show is very family-oriented too. We have siblings in the show together, and we have a mother and daughter who in the past have played mother and daughter in the show but are not playing other roles. This story is like all the best Christmas movies since it's alternately hilariously funny but also has a really touching message."
For those who have seen the show in the past, Murphy says this year's Youtheatre presentation of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever has one significant difference.
"Although the book was written in the 1970s, most of the time when the show is presented it's done as if it's taking place now. But since we're using the First Presbyterian stage and sharing it with their production of It's a Wonderful Life, it made sense to set our show in the 1940s. Obviously, their show has to take place in the 40s, so we're able to share sets and staging if we set ours in the same time. And it makes sense because it's a much different time now than it was when the book was first written. There's an innocence in children then so that the 70s are more like the 40s than they are like our modern world. It's also been a great way to talk to kids about how children would behave in 1943, how the way they might have behaved in church or those kinds of situations might have been different then than it is today. There's a different physicality, and of course we have them gathering around to listen to the radio rather than the television."
Murphy is also happy to have the First Presbyterian stage for other reasons.
"As someone who has directed on a lot of stages in this town, I think First Pres is my favorite. In terms of the stage size, it can accommodate a big cast like this. And its relation to the audience is much better because at the Embassy or even our home stage at Arts United Center some aspects of the show might be lost on the people in the back row. But here we can really bring out the nuances and subtleties which might not work on the other stages."
Fort Wayne Youtheatre is also borrowing a page from Fort Wayne Ballet's "Muttcracker" program and will this year feature adoptable dogs from Fort Wayne's SPCA as players in the show, with a table set in the lobby for visiting and possible adoption. Dubbing it "The Best Doggone Christmas Pageant Ever," Youtheatre hopes some pups will find new homes in time for the holidays. It's just one more reason that, after dozens of previous productions of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, for Fort Wayne Youtheatre, this may indeed be the best.
"I'm excited to be part of Youtheatre full-time now after working with them for years as a freelance teacher," says Murphy. "And I really believe in this cast and am enjoying the Christmas cheer I'm already feeling as we work on this show."