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Child actors bring holiday spirit to First Stage production

By JULIE McHALE - TimeOut Theater Critic

December 5, 2013

 
WAUKESHA - Christmas pageants are a common phenomenon in elementary schools.  We probably all remember if we were an angel, a shepherd, a wise man or got the very privileged role as Joseph or Mary.   

Whether we were in one or just watched our friends, we’ve probably all been exposed to one or more of them.  

First Stage has brought back “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” last performed in 2009, but over its 23-year history, it has delighted audiences seven times.   

Based on the book by the same name, authored by Barbara Robinson, the story is set in the ‘80s with the customs of ripped jeans, hairbands, neon clothing, and rock musical rhythms.  Allusions to the music and the culture of that decade pervade the show, providing humor for many adults in the audience. The kids respond more to the color, noise and the shenanigans of the narrative. Bullying, backstabbing, competition, jealousy - some of the problems every kid encounters - all arise here. Luckily, some of these negatives turn to positives before the story ends.  

The Herdman family provides the drama in this narrative. Their reputation for breaking all the societal rules is a noticeable canker in the town, and when they learn that there are free refreshments at church, they decide to stop by. As a result, they audition for the Christmas pageant. A dilemma lurks.  

Because the usual director, Helen Armstrong, broke her leg, Grace Bradley is asked to fill in. Little did she and her reluctant husband realize what they were in for when they offered to help out in the crisis. Uncooperative kids, unpredictable behavior on the part of the Herdmans, a bossy director giving orders from her hospital bed, a pastor who is trying to maintain the good graces of his parishioners, reluctance on the part of the usual participants - all combine to create stress and chaos.  

When the performance finally materializes, the surprises multiply.  Wonderful choreography characterizes the dances of the shepherds, angels and wise men, all of whom manage to wow the packed church. Natalia Haworth, who played Imogene Herdman, delivered a stunningly reverent “Silent Night” in her role as Mary in the pageant.  

Hope Stiverson also provided some laughs as Angel Gabriel. Mallorey Wallace was an effective narrator, and the huge cast of 35 children was a joy to watch.  

Major roles were well rendered by Gladys Chmiel, the dictatorial director; Niffer Clarke, the kind and brave substitute; Todd Denning, the reluctantly helpful  husband;  and Libby Amato, the exercise and singalong guru.   

Children of all ages will enjoy it on different levels.  

Directed by Jeff Schaetzke, “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” runs through Dec. 29 at the Todd Wehr Theater at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 929 N. Water St., Milwaukee. For show times and tickets, call 414-273-7206 or visit www.firststage.org