Most likely, the mistake barely registered for most patrons that night. And I only mention it because it was the only misstep in an otherwise perfect production. From the spot-on performances by the lead actors to a stunning set to a truly angelic choir, this is a show that sparkles with holiday cheer. Director Bruce Miller has brought an expert’s attention to detail — not to mention a shepherd’s organizational skills — to this production. With a cast that includes 26 children in a play filled with Eisenhower-era values, this show could easily become a sprawling, schmaltzy mess. Instead, Miller has crafted a production that warms the heart without overwrought emotions or cheap manipulation.
In the show’s nameless Middle-American town, the church’s Christmas pageant has always been a sterile, unsurprising affair. But this year, the Herdman family, a ragged collection of poverty-stricken bullies, hijacks the production. The sullen, cigar-smoking Imogene (Lisa Klopp alternating with Caitlin Tallent) installs herself as the mother of Jesus, to the abject horror of the entire town. But Imogene — young, dirty and poor — ends up acting as a living surrogate for the biblical Mary, and the town’s residents find themselves appreciating the story of the first Christmas like never before.
Much like “A Christmas Carol,” the key to the success of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” lies in its dark side. With offhand comments about “welfare baskets” and social services workers, there is a chilling subtext to the Herdman’s family story that is only hinted at. The play instead focuses on the Bradleys, an idyllic family with a mildly curmudgeonly dad, Bob (Andy Boothby), and a chipper mom, Grace (Jan Guarino), who is enlisted to direct the pageant. But the darkness remains in Imogene’s haunted look and the bald impudence of the other Herdmans, giving the simple tale a surprising resonance.
Also adding depth to the production is the majestic set designed by Grieg Leach. The town church is rendered in large expanses of maple that practically gleam under lighting designed by Allen Mack. This is one of those rare shows where the unveiling of the set generates more “ahs” then any other moment in the evening.
But the actors give the 80-minute show its compelling heart. As the lead adults, Guarino and Boothby create characters that are grounded in reality. Most impressive is the swarm of talented children who fill out the cast. All of the children’s roles have been double-cast so there may be some variation, but in the cast I saw, there wasn’t a false move made in the whole bunch.
Klopp is the heartbreaking standout as Imogene, but everyone down to Sydney Shavers as the pageant’s tiny baby lamb does an admirable job, remaining focused even during scenes of onstage mayhem. As smoothly as this production runs, it would take a lot more than a simple lighting gaffe to distract from its ample charms. S
Theatre IV’s “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” runs at various times, Tuesday through Sunday, through Dec. 21 at the Empire Theatre, 114 W. Broad St. Tickets cost $18. Call 344-8040.
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