Best “Best Christmas Pageant Ever”

December 6, 2011

In what is quite possibly one of the best ever “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” the Falmouth Theatre Guild offers a warm and engaging holiday show for young and old. What sets this performance apart is the decision to set the play in the 1950s and present the scenes leading up to the pageant in black and white, gray, and silver, giving it a slightly surreal effect, as if we are watching a 1950s television show. It gives the show a very sophisticated look.

When color is finally introduced, in the Christmas Pageant itself, it glows with intensity and warmth, reflecting the vibrant characters and their discovery of the true meaning of Christmas.

Directed by Suzanne Lawson (who played the role of Grace Bradley in last year’s FTG production of the play), with music direction by Jeanne Kuzirian, the play is based on Barbara Robinson’s 1972 book of the same name (copies of which are awarded to random ticketholders at the start of each show), a heartwarming and laughter-packed tale of how the Herdmans, a family of six badly behaved, carelessly dressed children, shake up the annual church Christmas pageant.

“They went through Woodrow Wilson School like those South American fish that strip your bones clean,” we are told as the play begins. Drawn to the church by the promise of free snacks, they demand, and receive, key roles in the play, learn the story of the birth of Jesus for the first time and end up transmitting their joyful interpretation to others.

Olivia McKnight, a seventh grader at Lawrence Junior High School in Falmouth, is outstanding as Beth Bradley, who narrates this story of the year her mother Grace took over the pageant. Confident and self-assured on stage, she speaks  clearly and projects her voice well, expressing both her concerns about the Herdmans and her support for her mother.

Her brother Charlie is played by Max Quidley, who lives in Mashpee and attends Mullen-Hall School in Falmouth. He explains why he enjoys church: “No Herdmans.” All that changes when he mentions to one of the Herdman boys that the church provides snacks.

Grace Bradley is played by Kimberly Emerald Boutin of Falmouth, elegant in her black-and-white dress, and determined to put together the “best Christmas pageant ever,” despite the many obstacles in her way. Ms. Boutin is new to the theater (having appeared as Baroness Elberfeld in FTG’s recent production of “The Sound of Music”), but you would not know that from her fine performance.

Jerry Morse plays her husband, Mr. Bradley, and though he was sometimes difficult to hear at Saturday afternoon’s performance, he delivers some of the funniest lines, usually some version of “Do I have to go?” In the end, though Mr. Bradley helps his children see that the Herdmans’ participation, and their various alterations of the “same old boring pageant” have lent new meaning to the Christmas story and given new energy to the pageant.

Many of those in the large cast (58 people, the large majority of them children, including 10 tots in the Baby Angel chorus and 14 middle school children in the Angel Choir) do not have extensive acting experience, in keeping with the Theatre Guild’s desire to give opportunities to new actors and to retain the flavor of a real Christmas pageant.

Jane Earley as Imogene Herdman and Ann-Marie Freeman as Gladys Herdman are both terrific. This is Jane’s third appearance in “Best Christmas Pageant,” her first as Imogene. Jane is a sixth-grader at Bridgeview Montessori School. A gymnast as well as an actress, Jane walks on her hands with ease, but it is her metamorphosis from an annoying, controlling loudmouth to a compassionate young woman that is the heart of this show, as she discovers “the wonder and mystery” of Christmas.

Ann-Marie, who received the loudest applause on Saturday, was perfect as the Gladys portraying the Angel, full of over-the-top, from the heart, enthusiasm. Ann-Marie is a third-grader at Mullen-Hall.

Hale Thomas, a sixth-grader at Morse Pond, does a fine job as Ralph Herdman; Thomas Earley a fifth-grader at Bridgeview Montessori School, in his third appearance in the show, plays Leroy Herdman; Alden Thomas, a fourth-grader at Mullen-Hall, is Claude Herdman; and Thomas Walker, as second-grader at North Falmouth Elementary School, plays Ollie Herdman, in his second appearance in the show.

Helena Connell, a sixth-grader at Morse Pond, is Alice Wendelken, who is making her second appearance in the show, playing the girl who has always played Mary in the past and, though a friend of Beth’s, keeps a diary of everything that goes wrong in the show.

Gabrielle Melchiorri, homeschooled, of East Falmouth, is Maxine, another friend of Beth’s, who complains about the Herdmans and helps run the pageant.

In addition to providing a wonderful cast of characters and her very effective use of black-and-white, Ms. Lawson has enlivened this production in other ways. Mrs. Armstrong (who previously directed the show and is played by long-time FTG actor and director Davien Gould) is brought on stage in a new way during Mrs. Bradley’s phone calls with her, and the transitions are flow magically. Aisles are creatively used, and set design, also by Ms. Lawson, is just right.

“The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” should be part of everyone’s Christmas theater-going tradition. Appropriate for the whole family, the show runs about an hour, with no intermission.

“The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” may be seen Friday, December 9, at 7:30 PM and Saturday and Sunday, December 10 and 11, at 4 PM. Tickets are $12 for adults and $10 for children, seniors, and groups. Call 508-548-0400 for tickets and information, or buy tickets online at www.falmouththeatreguild.org.

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