'The Best Christmas Pageant Ever' has the feel of something you'd expect to see in the local school multipurpose room, rather than the Woodland Opera House, and - at only 90 minutes long, including a 15 minute intermission - that may reflect its anticipated audience.
But thanks to the deft hand of director Jeff Kean and a talented cast, the show is a fun addition to the annual line-up of holiday entertainment.
The scene is set by young Beth Bradley (Amy Miles), as she describes the new family in town: 'The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars - even the girls - and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker's old broken-down toolhouse,'
The six Herdman kids are the school bullies. They beat up kids before school and steal their lunches, or take their money. Everybody is afraid of them.
The young actors playing the Herdmans are just great. Horace Gonzalez is appropriately sullen as the oldest son, Ralph. Elisa Marks is the bleached-blond Imogene, who has a surprising reaction at an emotional moment. Sam Kyser is Claude, and William Black is Ollie; Ani Carrera steals every scene as the youngest, Gladys, who has the greatest defiant pout you'd ever want to see.
The Herdmans decide to go to church because they hear that snacks are served at Sunday School. And then they discover the annual Christmas pageant.
Because of an injury, the longtime director, Mrs. Armstrong (Armida Wahl), is unable to direct the play. The task falls to Beth's mother, Grace Bradley (Julie Greene), with the reluctant assistance of her husband, Bob (Charley Cross), who really only wants to stay home in his bathrobe and watch TV.
Grace quickly discovers that she may be in over her head, although she's determined to make this the best Christmas pageant ever.
Imogene beats out Alice Wendleken (Ashley Vall) for the role of Mary, the role Alice usually plays. Vall is wonderfully whiny and petulant.
Nobody wants to be an angel because Gladys bites people, and thinks the proper salutation for the shepherds is 'Shazam!' Nobody else wants to be around her.
The predictable ending is strongly foreshadowed when Grace discovers that the Herdmans haven't heard the Christmas story, and so reads it for them out of her Bible.
We never see any actual rehearsal taking place for the pageant, although chaos and mayhem fills the stage, and the dress rehearsal never happens because nobody seems to have any costumes.
Despite all this, somehow things come together for a surprisingly poignant finale. The gifts of the Maji may bring a tear to the most cynical of hearts.
'The Best Christmas Pageant Ever' is based on a 1972 book by Barbara Robinson, which was adapted into a television movie in 1983. The infamous Herdmans go on to appear in two subsequent books by Robinson.
Kean's set design is lovely, bathing the entire theater in lights, and including some beautiful stained glass window effects.
Laurie Everly-Klassen costumes includes an angel who wears a little ducky robe 'because her mother was out of white sheets,' and Gladys' grimy robe is held together by a man's tie.
Children will love this show, and it's short enough - and active enough - to hold the attention of even the youngest theatergoers.