Some things just go together – like popcorn and movies or a cup of coffee and the morning - but nothing quite compares with the holiday season and “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.” Both wholesome and zany, the story has been around since 1971, with its own ABC television special to boot. Yet the 27th annual stage production of the story at Cape Fear Regional Theatre still manages to tease out laughs, cuteness and the power of generosity – everything that makes “BCPE” so special.
Narrated under the straight gaze of Beth (Megan Steenbergh), whose mother is hoodwinked into directing the church’s annual Christmas pageant, we learn everyone is apprehensive to do the show this year because the misfit Herdman children will participate. There’s Ralph (Josiah Burkhardt), Imogene (Briana Fewell-Johnson), Leroy (Curtis Holst), Claude (Sophia Rosado), Ollie (Devin Tandon) and Gladys (Annika Benander) Herdman.
To borrow words from “Home Alone,” Benander as Gladys has “a certain je ne sais quoi.” The part inherently gives her an advantage, it seems, as she’s in the wackiest and most physically demanding role – not to mention she has her own catchphrase to capitalize on – “Shazaam!” But I don’t think anyone quite anticipated her ability to wrap the whole play in a Christmas bow and thoroughly steal the show. Gladys is kooky and hilarious, but the showmanship Benander possesses is shocking for someone so young.
The storyline of Imogene, though, stitches the themes of the show together. I only wish she had a more equal narrative footing in the production. In the story, she’s the one who smokes the cigars, bullies the other children and dares to question the nativity story – in a church, no less. If the Herdmans are a bunch of rotten apples, then Imogene is the queen that presides over them.
By the end of the pageant, however, it’s Imogene who demonstrates a near reverence for her role of Mary. She weeps over it, even. A solo monologue for Imogene might have brought this character development home for the audience. This is just as true for the story on which it is based.
Still, the theater breathes life into the presentation of the story in other ways. Everything from snow flurries to smoke to alternating mood lighting create an indelible ambiance. The set itself is newly built specifically to invite the audience into the story. By design, it is simple: a church façade with steps and a vaulted window with a biblical stained glass image. In one scene, the lighting hits the window from behind to reflect the stained glass onto the stage. It is lovely and unexpected.
But some moments disarm you with the intensity of their tenderness – like when a nameless little girl sidles up next to Beth’s mother, Grace (Donna Jo Mangus), on a bench. Grace despairs because the pageant is turning into a fangled, chaotic mess. The little girl looks up at her and says, “I’ll help you.” It’s silent, but then you hear growing echoes of the other children saying, “Me, too.” It’s enough to make you want to cry on the spot – because the spirit of children is the spirit of Christmas itself. Not presents. Not trimmings or candy. Just the selfless acts of kindness and generosity. That’s what “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” is all about, and the red cast at CFRT charmingly embody it.
Performances will continue to run at CFRT until Dec. 17. For tickets and information, visit www.cfrt.org.