Monday, November 30, 2009
Theater review: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
It's a kids play, but parents were chuckling right along with them.
DALLAS If you're looking for a kid-friendly show that won't leave parents snoozing in the back row, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever performed by Dallas Children's Theater is it. The impressive child acting, smart sets, and thoughtful script made for a great Sunday afternoon.
Seven year old James Porter and his mom and friends, sitting in front of me, came all the way from Fort Worth to see the show. Porter and a row of excited elementary schoolers buzzed before it started, talking and playing in the aisles. But once the curtain drew, those kids were captivated. And isn't that what a children's play is all about?
As the name of the play suggests, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, directed by Nancy Schaeffer, is about a smattering of kids and parents who attempt to put on the best Christmas pageant their church has seen yet – until the rowdy, nuggie-inducing Herdman family hears about it. (The six unpleasant Herdmans don't go to church, but one of their classmates – oops! – mentioned that there are cookies and juice at church. Next thing ya know, the Herdmans show up at church and demand – threaten – that they will be cast in the Christmas pageant this year.)
So the story is predictable, but we'll forgive it that transgression: The two oldest Herdmans get cast as Mary and Joseph after they bully the previous year's Mary and Joseph into bowing out of the audition. Pageant coordinator Grace Bradley (played by Emily Gray) has taken over the pageant entirely after Mrs. Armstrong (Nancy Munger), who has always directed the Christmas pageant and is donning an entirely too glittery gold sequin shirt, is layed up on the hospital and has to hand over her duties. Will Grace Bradley and the band of hooligans be able to pull it off?
Sure they can. The most impressive performance of the night goes to the littlest Herdman of all, Gladys (Marlhy Murphy). In her lopsided long blonde pigtails and tattered clothing, Gladys was cast as the Angel of the Lord. Instead of muttering her simple one-liner, “Unto you a child is born,” she shazams her way onto the stage, first exclaiming her required line but then jumping up and down, adding, “He's in the barn, go see 'im!” Meanwhile, some of her Herdman brothers who are wisemen end up bringing gold, frankincense, and Spam onto the stage as their offerings – apparently one of the gifts got lost along the way. While the Herdmans acted beside the likable, non-Herdman children, their antics were believable, funny, and not at all overstated.
Bradley and her husband Bob Bradley (Karl Schaeffer) were constantly in character, even as they stood off-stage and pretended to guide the children through what should have been a miserable Christmas pageant. And Mary and Joseph (Morgan Tobey and Liam A. McShane, respectively) took us from hating the Herdmans to believing they were the sincere, proud parents of the son of God.
The sets by Randel Wright were smartly arranged, and most utilized both sides of the set – including the “unfinished” part. What started out as a simple church common room with arched ceilings turned into a cathedral, with fake stained glass windows attached between the arches and lighted from behind. The screens to the sides of the stage were nicely used for side conversations with characters who were meant to be miles away.
But perhaps the most heartwarming – the star atop the tree, if you will – was when the entire cast joined the stage for the final few numbers. The Baby Angels in the front row sang “Th-iiiiiilent Night,” a little off key and lispy, nearly drowning out the more mature singers behind them. And it really did feel like Christmas.
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