For the past two years, the Providence Players of Fairfax community theater have been performing “It’s a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play,” based on the Christmas movie classic. This year, though, they are presenting “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” for their 15th anniversary holiday production.
Director Beth Whitehead explained her choice by saying that the play includes 21 kids out of the 30 cast members. She was well acquainted with the show, having appeared in it with the Seattle Children’s Theater. “I said let’s do it, because there are a lot of kids, and we would love to get them on stage,” she said. “And the kids are terrific.”
They certainly are, starting with the narrator, Beth Bradley, played by Hazel Thurston. She seizes and holds our attention with her energy and enthusiasm, as she warns the audience against the six Horrible Herdman kids, known throughout the community as “the worst kids in the history of the world,” who lie, steal, cheat and smoke cigars — even the girls.
They also are capable of threatening violence, to seize the leading roles in the church Christmas pageant, mostly in order to enjoy the desserts the church provides.
Having never heard of the Nativity, they interpret it in their own startling way. Confusing “Wise Men” with “wiseguys,” the boys swagger onto the stage in a manner that would have made James Cagney proud. In her role as the Virgin Mary, Imogene (Jody Lynn Parker) causes even more confusion, by stamping around threatening to kill King Herod. As a great fan of violent comics, her sister Gladys (Kyleigh Friel) throws up her arms as she announces her chosen title for the pageant: “Revenge at Bethlehem!”
The show turns serious in the second act, when the pageant is actually presented, and, by some miracle, the Herdmans are perfectly performing their parts. The audience sees the touching transformation even before the show begins, when Imogene stops throwing around the doll representing the baby Jesus and starts tenderly swaddling and cuddling it instead.
The pageant is presented as a play-within-a-play, making the second act memorable indeed. The youthful chorus sings hymns a capella as a beautiful background to the story, and the Baby Angels are absolutely adorable, including the 4-year-old Matilda Lee.
When Gladys ends the show by throwing her arms up extra high and shouting extra loudly, “A child is born!,” the pageant ends on a high note indeed.
It’s a sure sign of her acting skills that, after playing rough-and-tough Gladys on stage, 9-year-old Kyleigh proved to be sweet and polite in real life, when interviewed briefly after the show. Parker showed even more dramatic acting skills, when she made the jaw-dropping announcement that she is really 22 years old.
Kyleigh gave credit to the director for coaching her in her trademark gesture of throwing her arms in the air, thus showing that the adults involved in the production were just as terrific as the kids. The gifted grownups include Stephanie Hearn as Grace Bradley, the naturally overwhelmed pageant director. “Mary was quiet and kind,” she informs the skeptical Imogene, who is obviously anything but.
Created by Susan Kaplan and Lisa Church, the costumes are part of the fun, as when one of the “wiseguys” puts a pot on his head in place of a helmet. Even more notably, Beth Whitehead decided that the church’s exterior and basement would first be shown as projected slides, then replaced by the bare stage as the scene continues. This technique is abandoned when the stagehands come out during intermission to hammer up a manger, thus stressing its vital importance as a very special place.
In the true spirit of holiday giving, half of the play’s proceeds are going to the Young Hearts Foundation, which raises money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
Based on a children’s book by Barbara Robinson, “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” was made into a TV special in 1973. With productions like this, it might become a holiday standby, too — like “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” “The Nutcracker Ballet,” “A Christmas Carol,” “Miracle on 34th Street,” and, of course, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”