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Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013

Celebrating the Holidays in ’80s Style

First Stage’s ‘The Best Christmas Pageant Ever’

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Talk about a gut-busting show! Opening night of First Stage Children’s Theater’s production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (performed by the “Cosby Cast” this particular evening) brought holiday cheer to a nearly sold-out theater. Punctuated with endless ’80s references and precise comedic timing on behalf of all the performers, attending this show should become part of everyone’s Christmas tradition.

Catchy ’80s music marks the opening scene as six young performers enter from beneath the stage via a hidden platform, rocking out with instruments made of nets, crutches, buckets and tennis rackets. They are the Herdman siblings—introduced to us by their classmate Beth Bradley (Mallorey Wallace) as a rowdy bunch of kids who steal lunches, pick fights and are all around “bad.” It’s clear that everyone in the neighborhood agrees. Once acquainted with the Herdmans, we are introduced to the annual Christmas pageant put on by the community’s church. Beth’s family dreads the show—specifically Mr. Bradley (Todd Denning), who constantly asks his wife, Grace (Niffer Clarke), if he has to go. Alas, the family finds themselves waist deep when neighborhood taskmaster Helen Armstrong (Gladys Chmiel) breaks her leg and asks Grace to take over her role as pageant director. Grace accepts, but little does she know that the Herdmans, who never attend church, will show up the day of casting—much less that they want to play the leading roles in the Christmas pageant.

Word spreads throughout town that all six Herdmans will be performing—specifically that Imogene Herdman (beautifully played by Natalia Haworth) and Ralph Herdman (Austin Zdziarski) are Mary and Joseph. But despite everyone else being horrified, Grace is determined to make this year’s show the best pageant ever. The Herdmans had never heard the Christmas story before and, through the process of teaching them and rehearsing the play (however filled with interruptions), we are all reminded that the holiday season is a time of acceptance, giving and rejoicing.

The audience becomes part of the show, invited to join in for sing-a-long songs and an exercise session lead by Edna (Libby Amato)—the leotard-clad exercise mom with the quintessential leggings and side ponytail. The pageant then begins, infused with new twists on traditional holiday songs and familiar tunes such as Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and The Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian.” The Herdmans surprise the town with their charismatic performances and new friendships between classmates and families are formed.

The entire cast is incredibly in sync with one another and successfully creates a very entertaining theater experience. As a kind of narrator throughout the show, Wallace does an impressive job and is a blooming young actress. Also, a shout-out to the wonderful performances by Morgan Gamblin, who plays the stubborn Alice Wendleken, and Hope Stiverson, a brilliant Gladys Herdman.

First Stage’s The Best Christmas Pageant Ever runs through Dec. 29, at the Todd Wehr Theater in the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 929 N. Water St. For tickets, visit firststage.org or call 414-273-7206.