Providence Players The Best Christmas Pageant EverBy Bob Ashby • Dec 8th, 2012 • Category: Reviews
James Lee Community Center Theater, Falls Church, VA
Through December 16th
1:25 with intermission
Reviewed December 7th, 2012
At a time of year overflowing with seemingly endless performances of holiday warhorses, the really good news about The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, now being presented by the Providence Players at the James Lee Community Center in Falls Church, is that it is not A Christmas Carol, The Nutcracker, or It’s a Wonderful Life. Adapted by Barbara Robinson from her popular 1971 children’s book, the play imagines a humdrum church Christmas pageant being at first threatened, and then deepened, by the participation of six raucous siblings from the wrong side of the tracks.
The cultural and class contexts are important. The world of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is that of 1950s-1960s middle-American mainline Protestantism (a world in which I lived as a child and teenager and regard with considerable nostalgia). It was a comfortable place untroubled by creeping secularism or evangelical entrepreneurship. As the great sociologist of religion Peter Berger wrote, “Mainline Protestantism has always been in a symbiotic relationship with the middle-class culture, which is to a large extent its own historical product…and that continues to be its social context. In the 1950s mainline Protestant churches reflected the middle-class culture and constituted a sort of social establishment within it. Put sociologically, the principal function of these churches was to legitimate the middle-class culture of America, to certify that the latter was indeed ‘OK.'” It was the world, as Berger put it, of the “Protestant smile…of ingenuous niceness [that was] a sacrament of American civility.” The changes in the world since that time leave the story feeling somewhat dated 40+ years after its writing.
We see the events of the play through the eyes of the prototypically nice Bradley family (reminiscent of sitcom families of the Ozzie and Harriet era), particularly from the viewpoint of middle-school aged Beth (Hazel Thurston), who narrates. Thurston delivers her lines with confidence and, at times, flavors her narration with a dash of ironic detachment. As her father, Bobby Welsh radiates warmth and sincerity as he changes from a reluctant attendee at the pageant to someone able to articulate its meaning. As Grace, her thoroughly competent, unflappable mother (albeit one who seems not to have read Betty Friedan), Stephanie Hearn manages to organize the pageant and keep it from disaster. The fourth member of the family, younger brother Charlie (Brendan Dure), comes off as a bright, natural kid who is a good deal more than just perky.
The conflict in Act I comes from the six Herdman kids. They are lower class — on welfare, in fact — and do not conform to the norms of middle-class culture, such as attending mainline Protestant churches or behaving properly in school. They easily intimidate their more respectable peers. They show up for the pageant in the belief that there will be abundant free snacks. Grace’s task is to get them to take the story told in the pageant seriously, thus somewhat assimilating them into the mainline Protestant/middle-class program, while allowing them creative space to inject their own energy and insights into the proceedings. The ever kind and resourceful Grace succeeds.
Of the Herdmans, the most impressive is Jody Lynn Parker as Imogene, the older sister in the group. Parker’s experience shows in the evening’s strongest dramatic moment, in which Imogene wordlessly transforms into her pageant character of Mary. As the feisty Gladys, who conceives the Angel of the Lord as a comic book hero, Kyleigh Friel has energy to burn, though her diction blurs at times.
Meritorious mention should be made of several supporting performances. As Max, who narrates the Act II Christmas pageant, Ethan Phillips displays what, for a 6th grader, is a well-developed radio voice. Julie Bratton, as Mrs. Armstrong, is the most notable of a group of caricatured gossipy church ladies. Jennifer Owens does a good mean girl turn as Alice Wendleken, disgruntled at being displaced by Imogene in the Mary role in the pageant. The angel choir blessedly remains on pitch through several Christmas carols. As for the quintet of baby angels, what can one say except that they are too cute for words?
The structure of the play is a bit odd. Act I is largely organized as a series of blackout sketches, while Act II devolves into, well, a Christmas pageant, thereby losing some dramatic steam. Through it all, director Beth Whitehead keeps her large cast well-organized and the pace quick. The quality of technical side of the production is high. Brian O’Connor’s set consists of several smoothly sliding panels that part to provide extra playing space (for example, for Mrs. Armstrong’s hospital room) or act as a screen for photos of characters or settings (for example, of a classic 50s/60s Protestant church and its basement). Jen Grottle’s lighting design is efficient and cleanly executed.
Spike Lee and others have used the term “magical Negro” to criticize films in which an African-American character of superior wisdom, earthiness, or, in some cases, supernatural powers is used as a device for the spiritual enlightenment or redemption of white characters. (For an interesting discussion of the concept, see blackcommentator.com.) Well-known examples include Sidney Poitier in “The Defiant Ones,” Morgan Freeman in “Bruce Almighty,” Will Smith in “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” Michael Duncan in “The Green Mile,” and Whoopi Goldberg in “Ghost.”
In a light comic way, focused on class, not race, the Herdmans (members of the common herd?) perform a somewhat analogous function in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. They do not exist so much for themselves as to serve the spiritual improvement of the middle-class church members. At the play’s conclusion, the Bradley family is as nice as ever but, thanks to the Herdmans’ intervention, their appreciation of the true meaning of the pageant is enhanced. Even the church biddies admit that there was something special about this year’s pageant that, indeed, made it the best ever. Meanwhile, the Herdmans, having made the pageant more meaningful for everyone else, conveniently disappear, not even staying for the cast party. The middle-class world can go its way, better for, but not having to contend further with, their disruptive influence, let alone needing to address their day-to-day poverty.
With a cast involving so many children, a nearly capacity crowd full of proud family members basked in every moment, applauding following many of the short blackout scenes. Besides being a very enjoyable show for performers and audience, the production had a serious purpose, as half the net proceeds from the production plus the concession revenue are being donated to The Young Hearts, a local cancer charity.
- Father (Bob Bradley): Bobby Welsh
- Mother (Grace Bradley): Stephanie Hearne
- Beth Bradley: Hazel Thurston
- Charlie Bradley: Brendan Dure
- Ralph Herdman: Blake Phillips
- Imogene Herdman: Jody Lynn Parker
- Leroy Herdman: Ryan Clark
- Claude Herdman: Diego Pedulla-Smith
- Ollie Herdman: Jay Swallow
- Gladys Herdman: Kyleigh Friel
- Alice Wendleken: Jennifer Owens
- Mrs. Armstrong: Julie Bratton
- Mrs. (Irma) Slocum: Libbey Eads
- Mrs. McCarthy: Nanci Pedulla
- Max: Ethan Phillips
- Elmer Hopkins: Adam Ashley
- Hobie: Elias Cato
- David: Bryce Neuhauser
- Janet/Angel Choir: Elise Welsh
- Beverly/Angel Choir: Lily Bernero
- Doris/Angel Choir: Nicole Owens
- Firefighter: Michael Donahue
- Firefighter: Julie Bratton
- Reverend Hopkins: Michael Ehrlich, Mike McLaughlin, Dave Schwartz (different dates)
- Baby Angels: Erika Friel, Leah Hearne, Katie Jaynes, Matilda Lee, & Juliet Phillips
- Director: Beth Whitehead
- Co-Producers: Prince McLaughlin & David Whitehead
- Technical Director: Brian O’Connor
- Technical Crew: Chris Burruss, Jesse Kane, Bron Pedulla-Smith & Andy Shin
- Stage Manager: Mike Donahue
- Assistant Stage Manager: Danine Welsh
- Set Design & Construction: Brian O’Connor
- Set Construction Crew: John Coscia, Patrick David, Laura Dunn, Melissa
- Febbo, Sara Febbo, Andrew Garling, Chip Gertzog, Jesse Kane, Ann
- Mattheisen, Mike Mattheisen, Mike McLaughlin, Prince McLaughlin, David
- Schwartz, Bron Pedulla-Smith, Steve Smith, Dale Wells, Beth Whitehead
- & David Whitehead
- Set Decoration: Brian O’Connor
- Photos & Sound Recordings: Chip Gertzog
- Light Design: Jen Grottle
- Props: Susan Devine, Anne Marie Nasto & Donna Naybor
- Costumes: Susan Kaplan & Lisa Church
- Costume Assistant and Crew: Dane-Marie Pedulla-Smith
- House and Box Office Management: Mike Daze and Beverly Baughman
- Playbill Design: Ellen Burns
- Playbill Advertising: Jayne Victor & David Whitehead
- Publicity: Chip Gertzog
Disclaimer: Providence Players provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/8933.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.