Colonial Players of Annapolis’ production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is a hilarious take on the Christmas story. Written by Barbara Robinson and based on her beloved 1971 novel, which was also made into a movie in 1983, it tells what happens when Grace has to direct the church’s Christmas pageant and the Herdman children, “the worst kids in the history of the world,” decide to get involved. This version, directed by Erica Miller and Rowena Winkler, updates the play with videos and cell phones to help tell a funny, yet thoughtful story that is perfect for the holidays.
Laura Ivey brings a quiet strength to Grace, the parent who gets roped into directing this year’s Christmas pageant. Her reaction when the Herdman kids enter is perfect: surprised but marching forward. Watching her try to quietly maintain order during rehearsals is incredibly funny, as boys and baby Jesuses (a doll) are tossed around. She gives firm but helpful advice to Imogene (Rachel Leonovich) before the pageant, which has a tremendous effect. Leaving the stage at the end, she lovingly looks back at the church.
Jason Vaughn has great comic timing as Grace’s husband Bob. Learning she’s directing the pageant, he asks “So does this mean I have to go?” He gets great laughs just silently shepherding the kids on and offstage during the pageant, particularly during one totally unexpected moment. He also has some deep words of wisdom, reminding his family that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were refugees.
Shannon Benil is a hoot as Mrs. Armstrong, the usual pageant director, now in a wheelchair from an accident. Wheeling around the stage, she gives incessant, unwanted advice to Ivey. Her amazement at learning that Imogene is playing Mary is hilarious, with choice words.
Rachel Leonovich plays Imogene Herdman with fierce authority. She plants herself on a bench, shoving off the other children. Announcing she wants to play Mary, she stares down anyone else thinking of the part. She questions why Mary didn’t get to name her own child and walks onstage once holding a cigar. She gives a powerful performance just before the pageant, silently pacing the stage with baby Jesus, saying everything just through her face. And her reaction at pageant’s end is incredibly moving.
Jerrel Barnes gives a quiet toughness to Ralph Herdman. During rehearsals he helps his siblings take over the story, turning the inn into a fort with archers and fighters. As Joseph, he leads Leonovich onstage, and supports her during an emotional moment.
Althea Francioch gives a terrific energy to Gladys Herdman. Silently intimidating the other kids, she walks over to them and makes kicking motions. Later, she rushes around the stage with her own interpretation of the story, shouting “Shazam!”
Keith Ivey plays Leroy Herdman with great sullenness and scowling while making sarcastic comments. Ian Brown plays Ollie Herdman with great energy, racing around the stage. Emma Miller sulks as Claudia Herdman.
Mackenzie Currie gives a snobbish superiority to Alice. Having always played Mary, she is appalled at Imogene getting the part, prepared to see the worst in her.
Tyler Currie and Nilsson Benil are adorable as Hobie and David, playing shepherds. They both have great comic timing, delivering their lines expertly.
Jackson Parlante plays Charlie, Bob and Grace’s son, with an eagerness. From a video, he interrupts his sister (Sedona Salb) talking about the Herdmans. He sings beautifully on his first appearance onstage. He circles around Leroy, telling him about the church.
Sedona Salb radiates kindness as Beth, Bob and Grace’s daughter. She narrates the play, both on video and onstage. From the sidelines, she notices and remarks on Imogene’s transformation. Amid all the chaos, she serves as a quiet rock of stability and civility.
Set Designer Bill Fellows has created a simple, yet effective set. On the far right is a small table covered by a tablecloth with stools for the Bradley’s kitchen. Several benches are on the left and move around as needed. In the far-left corner is a pulpit and various items for the church. Properties Designer Deborah Guy-Skriloff fills out the stage with many different pieces, including a ham and a small Frankenstein figure, and the baby Jesus.
Costume Designer Amy Atha-Nicholls’ have a charmingly home-made look, with bathrobes for the shepherds and Joseph and foil haloes and wings for the angels. Imogene’s Mary costume is surprisingly lovely, with a gray headscarf and blue cloak.
Lighting Designer TJ Lukacsina uses lighting effects to help with the mood. When the Herdmans appear for pageant tryouts, the lights flash red for a danger sign. During Imogene’s silent scene, blue light shines over the stage. Before several scenes, the lights stay off while the Herdmans roughhouse and argue. Sound and Projections Designer Richard Atha-Nicholls throws out festive music throughout the show, and projects the videos of Charlie and Beth on screens on both sides of the theater.
Erica Miller and Rowena Winkler do a wonderful job as Directors. The actors, including the child performers, easily navigate the stage and each other. They keep the laughs coming, but also make some thoughtful points about “showing patience, love, and acceptance,” as their notes say. This seems more important today than ever. It’s a funny, heartwarming play that gets at the real meaning of the Christmas story. It’s also probably the most unusual Christmas pageant you’ll ever see, so don’t miss it!
Running Time: Approximately one hour, with no intermission.
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever plays through December 15, 2019, at Colonial Players of Annapolis, 108 East Street, Annapolis, MD. For tickets, call the box office at 410-268-7373 or purchase them online.