By Perry Tannenbaum
A week after reviewing the world premiere of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical, commissioned by Children’s Theatre of Charlotte and staged at ImaginOn, I found it easy to imagine that the Barbara Robinson stage play it was based upon could be headed toward oblivion. Driving along I-485 toward opening night of the current Matthews Playhouse production of the non-musical, I had a poignant realization that this could be the last time I’d see the infamous Herdman siblings – “the worst kids in the whole history of the world” – without the new music by Jahnna Beecham and Malcolm Hillgartner that accompanies their superb adaptation.
Directed by June Bayless with a cast of over 40 children and adults, the Matthews production mightily reinforced my impression that the Beecham/Hillgartner musical boasts more vivid storytelling than the 1982 playscript, adapted by Robinson from her own 1971 young adult novel. Not always embracing the challenges – and rewards – of dramatization, Robinson often delivers her story to us second-hand through her narrator, Beth Bradley, a young girl who has a great vantage point for the unfolding events but doesn’t play a key role.
Instead of seeing her younger brother, Charlie, getting in trouble for saying that the best thing about Sunday school is its welcome refuge from the Herdmans, Robinson is content to have Beth telling us about it. Where Beecham and Hillgartner show us how the six Herdmans terrorize Charlie and his schoolmates in the lunchroom – with a dynamically choreographed, hard-rocking “Take My Lunch” production number – Robinson carries out that chore by having Beth confide in us or by Charlie whining about it to his dad.
A huge turning point in the plot, triggering the complication of the marauders invading the church pageant, comes when Charlie claims not to care about surrendering his lunch to a bullying Herdman, because even more enticing goodies are doled out to him after Sunday school. In the musical, this happens in the midst of total lunchroom pandemonium. In the play, it’s merely a dialogue that Bayless can stage in front of the curtain to mask a scene change. Time after time, watching the Robinson version just five days after the new musical demonstrated how deftly upsized the new version is and how static the old one was.
The disparity was magnified, of course, by the intrinsic differences between a generously budgeted professional effort and a more modestly funded community theatre production. But watching less polished performers at a more rudimentary facility also offers insight into why this clunky script is so beloved, mounted at least a dozen times over the past 14 holiday seasons in the Charlotte metro region. Rambunctious and rowdy as they are, the Herdmans are hard roles to mess up. Even when the savagery of the roles goes visibly against the grain of the young actors, the result remains very entertaining. The climactic Christmas pageant, dominated by the kids, is even more foolproof. At a church or school play, stiffness and self-consciousness are the norm, so any glints of talent and naturalness are gravy.
I wasn’t always sure that Bayless really wanted to transcend the awkwardness of school theatricals. Every actor and actress under the age of 21 faced the audience directly at an angle of zero degrees throughout the 68-minute performance, assuring the same degree of spontaneity for much of the dialogue. When we reached the most chaotic scene, in fact, as firemen ran through the audience in response to an alarmist distress call, panicky children were herded into a circular cluster – and every single child was facing in the same direction, toward us!
The imaginativeness of the staging can be gauged by the beginnings of the two pageant rehearsal scenes. In the first, the kids were curiously quiet and inert before Grace Bradley arrived, but in the second, there were all kinds of noise and commotion. Why the difference? Very logical: in the second scene, the script calls for Mrs. Bradley to demand that the kids quiet down.
No doubt, this style of staging can be adorable. In the actual pageant, all of the heavenly angels came downstage and filled the space from wing to wing as they sang, the littlest angels on the outside flanking a perfectly symmetrical phalanx, with the tallest at the center – like a snowcapped mountaintop crowned with glittering haloes. Trouble was, this angelic row almost completely blocked our view of the Herdmans behind them, getting miraculously wrapped up in the spirit of the Nativity scene they were acting out.
Somehow the impulse to gratify parents and relatives in the audience – those whose kids were in the choir – took precedence over giving the story its maximum impact when it mattered most. The artistry of Evan Kinsley’s lighting design, isolated the Herdmans from the surrounding shepherds, villagers, and wise men, was largely wasted here, for the transformed kids emitting this unexpected glow were almost totally obscured from view. The three busybody gossips, Grace’s implacable detractors, entertainingly sat themselves among us to watch the pageant. They could pretend to have been amazed at the Herdmans when the holiest moment arrived, but I was frustrated by it.
Not having seen such a large cast of unpolished actors in a long while, I found myself tickled at the rich variety of shy, stiff, and promising performances, some of which were brimful of oddly channeled energy. It’s best to dwell on the standouts, I think. While there was a nice shambling quality to Michael Smith as Mr. Bradley, who would rather not see the pageant even if his wife and kids were going to be in it, Nicole Cardamone Cannon as Grace was easily the best of the adults, almost radiant in her forbearance as she dealt with the Herdmans and reassured their victims.
JJ Twer as Beth had a winsome personality as our narrator – and her mom’s prime defender – but Thomas Mink as little brother Charlie pleased me a little more, high-spirited despite all his grievances and more consistently intelligible. Among the Herdmans, the girls have the plumiest roles, and Bayless has cast well here. Ella Osborn as Imogene is a snarling wildcat until the role of the Virgin Mary domesticates her, and Grace Ivey remains implacably exuberant as Gladys, even after landing the role as the Herald Angel. A day after the show, Ivey’s “Shazzam!” is still ringing in my head.