BWW Reviews: First Stage Celebrates THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER
In a reprise of a beloved classic children's story, First Stage features The Best Christmas Pageant Ever on the Todd Wehr Stage at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts to celebrate December. In this play for anyone who ever felt unloved, the horrible Herdman family returns with Imogene, Ralph, Ollie, Claude, Leroy and tiny Gladys Herdman. to enliven the First Stage production with their unconventioanl personalities. The charming retelling of the ancient Christmas story reminds audiences the wildest hearts can be reclaimed through the power of patience and understanding.
Wild best describes the behavior of the six Herdman children who terrorize an entire town in a story narrated by Beth Bradley, a young girl who lives with her brother Charlie and parents Bob and Grace. Beth explains the unusual happenings on one holiday season when the local organizer of the church's Christmas Pageant breaks her leg. With true chagrin, Beth realizes her mother will run the pageant after the Herdman's discover free food can be found at the very same church, and plan to participate in the pageant while Charlie then decides he may never wish to go to church again.
First Stage and debuting director Jeff Schaetzke restage the production in the 80's, a decade recalling the Keatons of Family Ties, the Huxtables of The Cosby Show, and the Seavers in Growing Pains, pop culture that influenced costumes designed by Lyndsey Kuhlmann. While Molly Rhode choreographed the original 80's dances refreshed by Chris Feiereisen, the entire ensemble fills the stage with a grand cast of young performers. With approximately 35 actors in the alternating Cosby and Keaton cast, close to 70 children participate in the production
The Keaton cast performed on Saturday evening featuRing Thomas Kindler playing Claude Herdman, Kelsie Ailing as the lovely Imogene Herdman, and then as a spunky Christmas angel, Eloise Field who emerges as the charming Gladys Herdman to command the stage whenever she had the chance. Madeline McNichols gives voice to Beth Bradley, who narrates the entire production with genuine appeal.
For the adult casting, Niffer Clarke couples with Todd Denning playing the Bradley parents while Libby Amato generates an 80's vibe dressed as fitness guru Edna McCarthy. Scenic Designer Sarah Hunt-Frank constructed a beautiful church interior when the second act opens that allows the Herdmans their moment in the church's Christmas Pageant. Familiar carol music sung by the children accompanies the age-old nativity story and includes a moving solo of "Silent Night" sung by Mary.
In this culture and time, 2013, the knowledge of the Christmas story may be nonexistent, lost in the clutter of Iphone and Ipad games and videos, unknown to several generations of children. This First Stage production illuminates the plight of the six Herdmans, where there are families who rarely if ever heard the original reason for the holiday. While the Herdmans were thinking the Christmas story might resemble "The Revenge of Bethlehem," or the church ladies might be aghast at having the choir rock and roll to "White Christmas," the retelling of the story can miraculously change the horrible Herdmans to the heartwarming Heardmans, or any horrific experience into a divine moment.
The Christmas angel Gladys proclaims to the audience, "Unto Us a Child is Born" and these words can be a message of glad tidings for all those who think they might be unlovable like the Herdmans. A story accepted with a clear understanding each individual might imagine a different vision of the baby in the manger placed in a "feed trough" and "waddled up clothes," that brought grace here on earth to renew seasons of charity and hope. Welcome the Herdmans to the holidays this year. This enchanting and poignant First Stage Christmas Pageant, a best ever, reminds audiences the nativity story remains relevant every year when Milwaukee celebrates the retelling of the First Christmas for future generations.
First Stage presents The Best Christmas Pageant Ever in the Todd Wehr Theater at the Marcus enter for the Performing Arts through December 29. Hand stitched angel ornaments may be purchased in the lobby during performances as a donation to First Stage. For further information or tickets, please visit: www.firststage.org