Monday, December 23, 2013

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Duke City Repertory Theatre

Passion for the arts comes in every size, and for many young artists, it strikes at an early age. For those who wish to hit the stage as fast as they can, stories such as "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever," produced by Duke City Repertory Company and playing at the Cell Theatre, provide an opportunity for the artist and audience alike.

Photo credit Rick Galli
In a time when schools are de-emphasizing the arts, and slashing budgets as well, stage opportunities for young actors are met with enthusiasm by myself. So often, children's roles are diminished and one-dimensional in plays. What's most refreshing about this show, beyond its holiday appeal, is the chance for young actors to show their chops in roles that require not just line and blocking memorization, but comic timing, physical humor, and even character development. As Grace Bradley declares, "Jesus, Mary, even the short kids; everyone's important!"

Photo by Rick Galli
Lauren Myers plays Mother/Grace Bradley, the one who must direct this year's church Christmas pageant after a series of mishaps beyond her control, such as Mrs. Armstrong landing herself in traction. Equally beyond control are those "awful Herdman kids," the delinquent bunch who show up to church for the first time ever once they find out from young Charlie Bradley (Elijah Ortiz y Pino) that refreshments are being served there.

Cigar-smoking ringleader Imogene Herdman, played quite believably by Lillie Raine Kolich, bullies her way into being Mother Mary, and the rest of her siblings inevitably follow suit to join the cast as well. The heart of the show comes from watching the heathen Herdmans react to being a part of the Christmas story, having now heard it for the first time ever. Imogene has perhaps some of the best lines in the show, not only in her over-the-top pussy willow scene, but more so in pageant rehearsals, "My God! They didn't have room for baby Jesus?"  

Photo by Rick Galli
Surprisingly, each Herdman brings something unique to the pageant's production. Young Gladys (Ruby Webb-Sagarin) augments her part as the angel of the Lord by adding directions so the wise men wouldn't get lost. Leroy (Joaquin Madrid Larranaga) brings baby Jesus a welfare ham as his wise man's gift. Ralph (Matthew Joel Barkley) plays Joseph and Imogene garners laughs while indelicately burping baby Jesus in the way a true mother would. Perhaps it was me, but I could see Imogene having an authentic moment, likely being the one who rocked her own brothers and sisters, taking care of them in the absence of any true parental care.

Photo by Rick Galli
For the purpose of the show, the six Herdmans from the original book are reduced to four, which works nicely for the intimate playing space of the Cell Theatre. The show has many supporting parts, such as Grace's husband (Ezra Colon) but the bulk of the storytelling is done by young Beth Bradley, who often acts as the narrator in the show. Playing for a tight 45 minutes, this is no easy task and Mackenzie Jarell excels at the challenge, reminding us grownups what it's like to be caught between the peer and bully dynamics and the expectations of your parents & elders.

Directed by Katie Becker Colon, the show has all of the heart of original book by Barbara Robinson, and is a story I remember from when I was young myself, so it gave me a sense of nostalgia to come back to this story and hear it fresh once more. I admit, I am a softy through and through, and when Lillie, as Imogene playing Mother Mary, sang "Silent Night," I got a bit teary. Sure to touch your heart, the actors of this show are destined to give you a sense of Christmas cheer and remind you of what the season truly means to so many.

For more information about the Duke City Repertory Theatre's 2013-14 season, as well as their burgeoning outreach programs for children, visit their website at

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