'The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical' at First Stage Really is The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
By Mary Boyle
If you've never read the 1971 early reader book The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson, I'm here to tell you that you're missing out. This is the perfect story for your elementary school-aged child, when they're wanting a bit more than Dr. Suess, but they're still too young for Charles Dickens. This holiday season, though, Milwaukee area audiences are in for a great treat, because First Stage has an incredible new way to experience this holiday classic with The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical at Todd Wehr Theater though December 26th.
What's so wonderful about this story is it relates to just about any small community. The Herdman kids — Ralph, Imogene, Leroy, Claude, Ollie, and Gladys — are the kids that nobody likes: unruly, rude bullies who destroy everything they come near. Luckily, the kids in the community have one safe haven: their church. Well...they did, until one day at school when the Herdmans were stealing everyone's lunches, as usual, and Charlie Bradley snapped; trying to get the upper hand, he tells the Herdmans to go ahead and take his lunch, because he has something better: Sunday School, where there are all the snacks that you can ask for. Unfortunately, Charlie's plan backfires horribly. It's bad enough that his mother, Grace, was dragged into directing the annual Sunday School Christmas Pageant when Mrs. Armstrong ended up in the hospital, but now the Herdmans insist on being a part of it, and they took all the leading parts! The whole community is certain that it will be the worst Christmas Pageant in history — especially those snooty, gossipy church ladies!
Directed by Molly Rhode, whose career started with First Stage and who played Mindy the narrator in the 1990 version, the new Pageant features an adult cast full of Milwaukee favorites, such as Jonathan Gillard Daly, seen recently in The Eagle in Me: An Evening of Carl Sandburg at In Tandem, as Reverend Hopkins, and Laura Gordon, who has graced just about every stage in Milwaukee but makes her First Stage debut as Luanne. Karen Estrada, a frequent First Stage collaborator who actually got her start in acting with First Stage in the 1992 production of Pageant as Imogene, is perfectly cast as Grace Bradley. Lachrisa Grandberry as Helen Armstrong and Bree Below as Betty are both regulars at First Stage, and Cynthia Cobb as Connie was seen last season as Glinda in The Wiz.
The young performers are double cast. The Holly Cast includes: Liam Jeninga as Ralph Herdman; Isabella Hansen as Imogene Herdman; Iker Velasco as Leroy Herdman; Benjamin Nowacek as Claude Herdman; John Daniels IV as Ollie Herdman; Lina Singh as Gladys Herdman; Ryann Schulz as Beth; Miranda Cecsarini as Alice; Sanaa Harper as Ivy; Abram Nelson as Charlie; Zachary Nowacek as Elmer; Edward Owczarski as Teddy; and, Adelaide Schaetzke, Ailie Synder, Amalia Cecsarini, Sydney McElroy, Shawn Parish, Layton Lal, Zoah Hirano, Marguerite Van Slyke, Sophia Ruddock, and Maryanna Esten as ensemble. The Jolly Cast includes: Derrick Sanders as Ralph Herdman; Lily Miller as Imogene Herdman; Arlo Sturrock as Leroy Herdman; Deyki Miller as Claude Herdman; Brayden Schroeder as Ollie Herdman; Olivia Vitrano as Gladys Herdman; Harper Navin as Beth; Eloise Field as Alice; Nala Patel as Ivy; Thatcher Jacobs as Charlie; Henry Dizard as Elmer; Augie Poppert as Teddy; and, Abby Szolyga, Magdalyn Rowley-Lange, Zaria Johnson, Stella Metcalfe, Oliver Kelley, Reece Davis, Silvia Stoeger, Maura Kuhnen-Grooms, Pietja Dusek, and Quinn Sison as Ensemble.
Although the play has been done a number of times over the years at First Stage, the musical is a first, and I think audiences will appreciate the change. The music, directed by Jeff Schaeztke, is very well-written and fits perfectly with the story, expressing big emotions in the way that only music can. I particularly loved the hysterical "Die, Herod, Die!," but "On A Night Like This" was so beautiful it brought tears to my eyes. Director Molly Rhode has been involved, in various ways, in several versions of the play at First Stage, but she is really excited to be a part of this one.
“I’m excited to work on a new adaptation of this story that I love so much! I’m very impressed with this new version and am eager to share the show’s message with a new generation of young actors and audiences. I’ve always found this story compelling because of its message of compassion, empathy, inclusion and the power of community. These are critical life skills; and we all need to be reminded of their value. It’s a joy and an honor to work on this material with this group of young people.”
This is a holiday theatre opportunity that is truly for the whole family; full of laughs and fun for everyone, but also just the right dose of the real meaning of Christmas: remembering those less fortunate, and the birth of a baby in Bethlehem, long, long ago.
THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER: THE MUSICAL runs November 23 – December 26, 2018 at the Marcus Center’s Todd Wehr Theater, located at 929 N. Water Street in downtown Milwaukee. Tickets can be purchased in person at the Marcus Center Box Office at 929 N. Water Street, by phone at (414) 273-7206 or online at www.firststage.org.
Special events for THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER: THE MUSICAL
Pay What You Choose Performance: Tuesday, November 27, 2018 at 7:00 p.m.
Pay What You Choose tickets are available on a first come, first served basis with a minimum suggested donation of $5 per person. Doors open at 6:00 p.m. on the day of the performance. Patrons are encouraged to arrive early.
Grandparent Holiday Brunch: Sunday, December 16, 11 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.
Gather the grandparents, parents and children to enjoy a festive holiday brunch at the Bradley Pavilion at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, followed by a performance of THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER: THE MUSICAL at 1 p.m., just steps away from the Marcus Center’s Todd Wehr Theater. Along with a delicious brunch, families will enjoy a special visit from some of the cast, fun activities for the kids and more! To make your reservations and for more information, please visit: www.firststage.org/brunch
Tech Talks: Sunday, December 16 and December 23 following the 3:30 p.m. performance
Following select performances, learn more about the behind-the-scenes magic at the Tech Talks, a 20-minute extended talkback with the First Stage creative team.
ASL Interpreted Performance: Sunday, December 16, 2018 at 3:30 p.m.
This performance will be sign language interpreted for patrons who are deaf or hard of hearing. Assistive listening devices are also available at the Todd Wehr Theater.
About First Stage
First Stage is one of the nation’s leading theaters for young people and families. First Stage touches hearts, engages minds and transforms lives by creating extraordinary theater experiences through professional theater productions that inspire, enlighten and entertain. Its Theater Academy, the nation’s largest high-impact theater training program for young people, fosters life skills through stage skills and serves over 2,100 students each year. As Wisconsin’s leader in arts-integrated education in schools, First Stage’s dynamic Theater in Education programs promote literacy, character building and experiential learning throughout the curriculum, serving over 20,000 students each year. First Stage was selected to participate in the Partners in Education program of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (2012), and was the recipient of the Milwaukee Business Journal’s Eureka Award, recognizing creativity and innovation in business, education and the arts for its Next Steps program for students on the autism spectrum (2013, 2015). First Stage is a member of TYA/USA, the American Alliance for Theatre and Education, the Wisconsin Alliance for Arts Education, Milwaukee Arts Partners and is a cornerstone member of the United Performing Arts Fund (UPAF).