by Mike Redfern
The first professional production of ‘The Best Christmas Pageant Ever’, presented by Seattle Children’s Theatre in November, 1982, was described by The Seattle Times as “One of the best Christmas stories ever – and certainly one of the funniest”. Based on the young adult novel of the same name by Barbara Robinson, published in 1971, it tells the story of a couple struggling to put on a church Christmas nativity play who are faced with having to cast the toughest, meanest, most awful family of kids in town, the Herdmans, despite the protests of their own two kids and most of the church ladies. It’s a plot ripe for comedy and the script contains some very funny business and humorous dialogue which have made it continuously popular as a seasonal entertainment in the USA and Canada and, under alternate titles, elsewhere in the world.
If you are nostalgic about Christmas nativity plays of yesteryear which you enjoyed or, perhaps, suffered through as a child actor or as a doting parent, then you will almost certainly enjoy this return to that unsophisticated, improbably cast, simply set and amateurishly costumed theatrical form authentically presented by Off Centre Players in the Theatre at Centre 64 this Thursday, Friday and Saturday, November 12, 13, & 14. It certainly took me back to the Sunday school concerts and elementary school Christmas productions I saw or participated in during the 1950s, the era in which this play is set, and for several decades since. You remember them, don’t you, the manger scene with the three wise men played by pre-pubescent boys turbaned in towels and cloaked in bath robes, pre-school angels in tinsel tiaras and tissue paper wings, Christmas carols sung slightly off key but oh so sweetly by those cherubic little faces? 60 years on, do they still do that kind of thing, I wonder? Well, the Bradley family in this play sure try their best to pull off such a production in their local church but the Herdman kids introduce some decidedly unexpected elements that provide many of the laughs that make this comedy a perpetual favourite.
Off Centre Players introduce some unexpected elements of their own in the casting of this play, too. No doubt due to a shortage of sufficiently skilled juvenile actors, director Michelle Lemay has cast several adults in children’s roles. For example, the central character of Beth, the young teenage daughter of the Bradley family, is played by Brigitte Franyo. Beth holds the story together as the narrator as well as being an integral part of the story itself. All credit to Brigitte, we soon forget that this is a mature women performing before us; she is immediately convincing as an outspoken, ambitious, but frustrated kid, trying to get things right in the face of daunting odds. Her brother Charlie, played by Connor Klassen, also rings true for the most part as an angst-ridden youngster, providing some very amusing depictions of childish sulks.
I must admit that I was at first confused by the roles played by Brodie Peterson and Joanne Wilkinson as the brutish Ralph and bullying Imogene Herdman respectively, taking them for parents rather than siblings of the other Herdman kids. The physical imbalance of size and voice and features compared with the child actors playing the younger Herdman siblings accounts for this initial confusion. It’s a difficult trick to pull off, mixing actors of differing generations playing same age roles, and despite their energetic and antic performances, it required a considerable suspension of disbelief for me to accept these two characters as kids.
But once you get past these perception barriers, there is much to be enjoyed in the frantic interactions of the characters on stage. And when the play within the play, the Christmas pageant itself, is finally performed, there are some choice moments to be enjoyed. Look out for the abrupt and loud entrances of the archangel, convincingly performed by Gwen Davies as Gladys Herdman, and the brief appearance of the littlest Christmas angels in the choir; just how cute can kids get!
The play has a large cast, 26 on stage at the end, so you are bound to know someone in the show, maybe several. It’s a small town, after all. The show is only one hour long, no intermission, and it rolls along at a good pace, with action in front of the curtain while set changes are made. If you are at all hard of hearing, try to get a seat up front as some of the smaller voices don’t carry well to the back. But any seat in the house is a good one for this bright and breezy play, performed in front of a simple but colourful set. And as a special treat, in keeping with Christmas pageants, the audience gets to sing along with the cast in a well-known Christmas carol to get you in the mood for the upcoming festive season.