Synetic Theater’s teen company’s production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is an example of a case where a talented group of energetic and committed kids are able to overcome some production-related deficiencies to delight and entertain audiences young and old. Madeline Osborn, Eliza Lore, Jade Uyeda-Trackman, and Emily Berry are among a slew of talented performers that certainly rise to the occasion and bring spirited honesty to capture the simple tale of a young group of kids – some raised in church and some not – putting on a successful pageant depicting Jesus’ birth that defies all expectations. Thanks to the talents of the actors, Elena Velasco’s production (with directing consultation from Keegan Cassady, Alex Mills, and Ryan Sellers), is ultimately endearing.
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is the story of an average church putting on the annual Christmas pageant. When the usual director, Mrs. Armstrong (Emily Berry), ends up in the hospital, Grace Bradley (adult performer Karyn-Siobhan Robinson), takes over the duty of ensuring the traditional pageant goes on without a hitch. Her traditional ‘church’ kids, Beth (Madeline Osborn) and Charlie (an adorable Ethan Chow), begrudgingly take part in the production just as they have every year. Their father Bob (adult actor Joseph Carlson), also lends a hand. Although the casting of the leads is expected to be par for the course – know-it-all, goody-two shoes Alice, played with confidence by Morgan Vaughan, expects to be Mary again – a new gaggle of kids enters into the equation. The unruly, unchurched Herdman’s, who strike fear in every kid in town, decide to take part this year. Although the pageant is destined to be the worst ever, it ends up being the best one ever because the Herdman’s bring wide-eyed wonder matched with real life experience to their respective roles and teach everyone what the season is really about.
From the littlest angels (the extraordinarily adorable Kate Lanman, My-Linh Aslanian, and Kim-Anh Aslanian) to the older teens, every kid gives their all in this production although four particular performers stand out above the others. Madeline Osborn has the monumental task of narrating the piece as Grace Bradley. She demonstrates a natural stage presence that defies her young age and is the glue that holds the piece together. Endearing without being too saccharine, she carries it all off without a single hitch.
Eliza Lore, as the terrifying Imogene Herdman, undergoes the biggest transformation in the play and it works thanks to her strong acting skills and natural stage presence. Unruly and mean when necessary, she also subtly transforms into new mother Mary – a young woman starting out on a new, scary journey just like Imogene. Her ability to show Imogene’s inner-goodness – though very much hidden when Imogene first starts out preparing for the play – allows the culminating scenes of the play to have a monumental pay-off.
Jade Uyeda-Trackman brings copious amounts of energy and athleticism to the physically destructive role of Gladys Herdman. Like Lore, her character undergoes some transformation once she takes part in the pageant as the Angel of the Lord (an interesting one, to be sure). Her exuberance is integral to allow the transformation to be seamless yet, at the same time, unexpected.
Finally, Emily Berry only appears via projections (nicely designed by Joshua Rosenblum), but she expertly captures Mrs. Armstrong, the would-be director of the play who is also a bit of a control freak, and the churchiest of the churchy, with some great comedic timing. Berry commands attention is every scene and her theatrical facial expressions are certainly a sight to see.
Thanks to the fine teen actors, the deficiencies in this production have a lesser impact on the end result, but they do detract from the overall presentation. A staple of Synetic pieces is intricate choreographed movement/dance. The decision to add two dance sections to the play slowed the telling of the story to a halt. Although Randy Snight’s choreography (with assistance from teen Emily Berry) is youthful and fun to watch, it lacks purpose even if it is well executed by the young cast. The staging also does not make full use of the stage and is largely predictable.
Another problem lies with the adult actors playing Mr. and Mrs. Berry – although to be clear this could have just been a bad performance day. Karyn-Siobhan Robinson had a lifeless presence on stage and her inability to remember all of her lines certainly did not help matters. Every time she spoke, the energy level of the show dropped considerably due to her static and unnatural line delivery. Joseph Carlson was slightly more successful, but still quite underwhelming even if his part is slightly underwritten. He lacked chemistry with the other actors playing family members.
The minimal set/prop (Nick O’Leary), sound (Thomas Sowers), and lighting (Brittany Diliberto) designs suited the barebones designs that are usually present in church productions. However, the music choices – ranging from Benoit Jutras to Mannheim Steamroller and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra – don’t seem to make sense in the context of the play and don’t add much value or enhancement. The costume design (Azura Hassan and Anna Blanchard) is much more successful in that it captures both the thrown together costumes usually present in church pageants with a low budget, and (in the non-pageant scenes) the clothing differences between the have’s (the church kids) and the have-not’s (the Herdman’s).
I commend Synetic for its commitment to educating young performers. Its teen ensemble provides the next generation with ample opportunities to perform. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about!
Running Time: 60 minutes with no intermission.
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever plays at Synetic Theater – 1800 S. Bell Street in Arlington, VA – through December 27, 2012. Tickets can be purchased at the box office one hour before each performance, via phone (1-800-494-8497) or online.