BWW Review: THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER Heralds Musical Humor & Joy at Milwaukee's First Stage
Where a "perfect little town" meets "the worst kids in the history of the world," that's home to The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. First published as a book by Barbara Robinson in 1971, it's the story of the horrible Herdmans, a brood of delinquent kids who bully their way into the school Christmas pageant and usurp every last leading part, from Mary to Joseph to the Angel of the Lord. What will the Herdmans learn along the way? And what can perfect little town folk glean from this band of horribles? The answers await - in song and dance! - at Milwaukee's First Stage Theater.
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever has been a staple of First Stage since the play debuted in Milwaukee in 1990. In fact, this 2018 production, now a new musical adaptation, welcomes the return of two alums from those early years: Director Molly Rhode and actor Karen Estrada. Back in Pageant circa 1990, a young Rhode played Mindy the narrator, and two seasons later, Estrada made her First Stage debut as Imogene Herdman. For each of these women, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever was when they "fell so hard in love," as Estrada puts it, with theater.
Now as a musical set in the 60s, this Pageant is an opportunity for a whole new cast of youngsters to fall so hard. Key young-performers parts in the Holly cast include Liam Jeninga as Ralph, the eldest Herdman, and Isabella Hansen as Imogene, the toughest Herdman. Hansen nails the rough-and-tumbled rebel vibe, ruling the Herdman clan and the rest of the school through a dense cloud of intimidation and cigar smoke.
When Imogene insists on playing Mary in the pageant, it isn't until rehearsal that she learns Mary is "with child." Hansen's reactions to this bit of news had the audience, kids and adults alike, busting a gut at lines like, "Where is her social worker?" and "What kind of cheapo king gives OIL as a present?" and the one that leads to a hilarious musical number: "My God! They were gonna kill a BABY??" Cue the rousing "Die, Herod, Die!"
Hansen, Jeninga, and their fellow Holly cast Herdmans, played by Iker Velasco, Benjamin Nowacek, John Daniels IV, and Lina Singh, snag lots of laughs and instill a lot of fear throughout the show - but it's the tender moments they bring to the story that make these parts dynamic and all the more memorable. Bullies though they may be, we're asked to consider why these kids act out in the ways that they do. Per the Director: "The importance of compassion, empathy, inclusion, and community are central themes to the show."
The bulk of this compassion comes courtesy of Estrada's character, Grace Bradley, and Jonathan Gillard Daly's kindly Reverend Hopkins. When the usual director of the Christmas pageant, Helen Armstrong (Lachrisa Grandberry) lands in the hospital with broken limbs galore, Mrs. Bradley has no choice but to step in and run the show, much to the chagrin of her husband (Chase Stoeger) and two children.
Overwhelmed at the task ahead of her - mainly, wrangling the horrible Herdmans - Estrada at one point uses an entire table runner as a handkerchief. But she presses on, realizing that the Herdman kids lash out at school for lack of love and understanding in their own home. "This is a high-energy, funny, and sweet show about not giving up on kids, even kids that are not your own," Estrada says. "Hope, purpose, and a sense of community help the Herdmans feel they matter, and it might be okay to let some of their anger go."
At the pageant itself, Imogene hams up Mary's labor pains and Lamaze breathing to shrieks of laughter. All of the pageant costumes, from makeshift cardboard angel wings to crocheted sheep ensembles, are an absolute delight - but the Herdmans take makeshift to the next level. The shepherds roll in with hockey sticks and brooms for staffs, and the youngest Herdman, Gladys (the phenomenal Lina Singh in the Holly cast), dons pink tinsel wings, a football helmet, and a halo made of rainbow Christmas lights to play the Angel of the Lord. Singh's vocals are strong, her stage presence natural and confident; she's one to watch.
Singh and Hansen lead the Herdmans in the sweet song "Basket of Cheer," a moment that reminds us that bullies feel pain and hurt, too. This is one of the only truly sentimental moments in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. The other songs lean much more into cleverness, both in choreography and how they move the story along. When the young cowboy-hat-wearing Charlie Bradley (firecracker Abram Nelson in the Holly cast) sings a lunchroom ode to Sunday School - the one place the Herdmans never go - the kids all back him up, using lunchboxes as percussion. Unfortunately for Charlie and the gang, the song points out the many wonderful snacks one can find at Sunday School, thereby luring in the horrible Herdmans.
Another clever tune is "My Mother Said," sung by schoolgirls Beth, Alice, and Ivy (the Holly cast's Ryann Schulz, Miranda Cesarini, and Sanaa Harper, respectively). It's a he-said, she-said gossip battle sung to the tune of "Carol of the Bells" - quick-paced and witty. The finale's exuberant "Let There Be Joy" wraps up the story with optimism and cheer, filling the theater with a hopeful message: "Let there be peace, let there be joy, in every girl, in every boy."
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever sets a merry tone for the holiday season - a season that, in the world of this Christmas pageant, challenges kids to focus on something other than just Santa and presents, a topic not mentioned once throughout the show. Whether rooted in religion or a more general sense of good will toward our fellow man, the holiday season is all about renewed faith and finding something good and peace-willing to believe in. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever reminds us of that, and such reminders are always a gift for kids young and old.
Photo credit: Paul Ruffolo