Review: First Stage's Musical BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER is the Best Show for Kids this Holiday Season

This classic Christmas story only gets better with song and dance

By: Nov. 27, 2023
Review: First Stage's Musical BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER is the Best Show for Kids this Holiday Season

A perfect little town and the worst kids in the history of the world are back at Milwaukee’s First Stage for The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical. Directed by Molly Rhode, this musical rendition of Barbara Robinson’s 1971 book first debuted at First Stage in 2018, but the play has been a First Stage staple since 1990. 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. 

This show has two tremendous casts with 20 young performers in each, plus seven adults. The Kerpow Cast performed the day I saw the show. The characters are loosely divided into two groups: Herdmans and everyone else. For the Herdmans, there’s Ralph (Terrance Ilion Jr.), Imogene (Lorelei Wessolowski), Leroy (Layla Ana Mathias), Claude (Marlow Kuhnen-Grooms), Ollie (Harlow Tobiczyk), and Gladys (Mila Rodriguez). They make a pitch-perfect bunch of rotten, cartoonish bullies with their sneering and screeching.

Wessolowski is a standout with great range, which she showcases as Mary in the pageant. She hams up Mary’s labor pains and Lamaze breathing to shrieks of laughter, then turns around and sweetly leads a lullaby. As the youngest Herdman, Rodriguez charms from her intense death stare to her exuberant “Unto us a child is born!” as the pageant’s Angel of the Lord.

Opposite the Herdmans are the Bradley family. Mrs. Bradley (Karen Estrada) is roped into directing the school Christmas pageant when the show’s usual director, Helen Armstrong (Lachrisa Grandberry), finds herself stuck in the hospital with a broken leg and then some. Both Estrada and Grandberry are reprising their 2018 musical roles, as are Laura Gordon, Bree Beelow, and Cynthia Cobb as a trio of prim and nosy school moms. Chase Stoeger is also back to elicit laughs as Mr. Bradley. The one new face in the adult cast is J.T. Backes as the kindly Reverend Hopkins.

Each of the adults is superbly fun and funny, particularly Estrada. During the song “Mrs. Bradley,” she earned more than one “woo!” of praise from the audience for her killer vocals and attitude. And while Grandberry may be laid up in a hospital bed nearly the entire show, her voice is one of the mightiest. She delights every time she’s rolled out on stage.

As for the non-Herdman kids, there’s the Bradley duo, Beth (Pietja Dusek) and Charlie (Silvia Stoeger), for starters. They make for a lovable family dynamic. Dusek has a lovely voice, which is nicely showcased in “My Mother Said” — a witty gossip song to the tune of “Carol of the Bells” that Beth sings with Alice (Taylor Arnstein) and Ivy (Lauren DeGroot). All the girls are sweet-voiced. Arnstein is a particular hoot as the goody two shoes Alice.

The entire cast looks terrific in emotive costumes by Daryl Harris. The perfect townsfolk don brightly-colored cuteness, while the horrible Herdmans only wear black and white like a bunch of jailbirds. Some of the best outfits come with the inventive ways the Herdmans interpret their costumes for the pageant itself. The shepherds roll in with hockey sticks and brooms for staffs, and Gladys dons pink tinsel wings, a football helmet, and a halo made of rainbow Christmas lights to play the Angel of the Lord. Scenic design by Kristin Ellert is simple but impactful with a vibrant stained-glass window backdrop and retro vibes throughout the set.

I should note that although there is a Sunday School aspect to the show and knowledge of Baby Jesus and the nativity might be helpful for kids, is isn't a prerequisite and The Best Christmas Pageant Ever isn’t strictly religious. The overall theme is more about extending kindness to those in need, including the outcasts, and looking for humanity in even our worst enemies. While “good will toward men” may be biblical, the notion is universal — and so is this musical’s appeal.

Altogether, with the show’s eye-popping look, energetic choreography, top-notch cast, and story that hits the spot this holiday season, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is a blast for the whole family. One final word from the show’s target audience: My twelve-year-old nephew, who has attended many First Stage productions over the years (and is, frankly, more into sports than the stage), came away saying this was his favorite show to date. You heard it here, folks — may your young ones enjoy The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical just as much!

Photo Credit: Paul Ruffolo