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In New Orleans in May of 1995, a busker with a trumpet came up to me and said, "Let me be the first to wish you a Merry Christmas." He then proceeded to demonstrate his ability to play the trumpet and smoke a cigarette at the same time. November 13-14 strikes me as early for Christmas wishes (although the great feast of the Church of the Merchants is already well underway), but The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, produced by Smiles and Frowns Playhouse and directed by Andrea Croskery, was definitely a wonderful Christmas present!
Smiles and Frowns is an independent non-profit theatre "for children, by children, since 1986." The town of Ayden generously supports the group by allowing their use of the Doug Mitchell Memorial Theatre, formerly Ayden High School. When I arrived, the scene was brilliantly alive with parent and grandparent volunteers and youth actors. Everything was handled in a totally professional way, which I consider a good sign for training up youngsters in the way they should go.
Barbara Robinson wrote the book The Best Christmas Pageant Ever in 1971 and adapted it into a play in 1982. Appreciation of the play requires that the spectator be totally culturally literate not just with Luke 2:1-20 but with the rigorously circumscribed world of the church/parochial school Christmas pageant, with the attendant wiggly little angels in buckram and gold tinsel wings and the bathrobe-clad pre-school shepherds, the Magi, the Angel, and the prom queen roles of Mary and Joseph.
The dialogue is sadly dated, with lots of male-chauvinist lines for the Bradley paterfamilias, played to a T by Jonathan Smith, and lots of subservient errand-running by his wife, Grace, competently played by Amanda Vermiglio. The traditional director character, out of combat and in a wheelchair, played by Therese Curtis, is intended to be a complete tyrannical harridan; the role was, perhaps deliberately, underplayed. There was great slapstick comedy when she was frantically scratching down in her cast with something about like a curtain rod. It is made clear that she is accustomed to running the show with an iron hand and a long list of favorites.
The decorous first rehearsal is crashed by the children of the local no-account family, the six Herdmans, played by Katie Brimhall, Matthew King, Faylee Crawford, John Fields, Bobby Curtis, and Maisy Woodmansee. You will have figured out already that the Herdmans will get to act out as Peck's bad boys, then be revealed as having hearts of gold, but this does not spoil the fun. There is a fair amount of political incorrectness written into the script about these welfare urchins; a lot of the plot depends on politically incorrect humor focused around the Herdmans. This non-PC humor is balanced by the self-righteousness of the historically good "churchgoing" children.
There's an excellently-staged pandemonium scene with firemen, flashing red lights, sirens, yelling and screaming, and running up and down the aisles. There is a touching scene when one of the Herdman/Magi brings the Baby Jesus the ham out of their welfare basket.
The absolute high point is the play within the play, the pageant itself, when they finally get to it. All the actors are on stage, and with every new reading from Luke's Gospel, these Pitt County children sing yet another of the most hackneyed Christmas carols from the pageant repertory. It is during these carols that the kind hearts of the Herdmans triumph over the coronets of the old guard.
As the innocent victim of countless children's church choir performances (and not a few pageants), I can attest that the singing was marvelous, pure, and tuneful, an amazing performance. So many children's choirs, focused totally on music, never achieve the excellence these young people offered up.
I'm a sappy old man; the wonderful singing of carols, while the Herdmans played out their denouement, had me crying in my seat. What a marvelous play! Merry Christmas, everyone!