Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever at Lakewood Playhouse

A Minor Miracle
by Michael Dresdner 

Thanks both to the skills of director Marty MacKenzie and to an innovative partnership with LIT, the theatre’s educational arm, Lakewood Playhouse is offering a Christmas-themed play, both by and for children, that is surprisingly good. A strong cast and crisp, innovative directing, including some very funny physical comedy, make this worth watching on its own merits, beyond the obvious allure of cute kids. For once, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever may actually live up to its name.  

Why the surprise? First, any show with 20 children in the cast is already a challenge. On top of that, there’s the unlikely script. In it, characters so stereotypically evil as to be almost cartoonish go through jarringly rapid and unlikely personality changes.     

The story involves a town that mounts a traditional, crèche-inspired Christmas pageant every year at the local church. The same kids are always cast, but this year there’s a hitch. The usual director, Helen Armstrong (Cassie Cahill), is in traction with a broken leg, and she reluctantly turns over the production to Grace Bradley (MariClaire Schilling) and her comically grudging husband Bob (Mark Peterson.) Much of the exposition is provided in the form of narration by their daughter Beth (Kathryn Dunkelberger.)  

The naïve Grace ends up casting the town delinquents, a gaggle of hard-core young bullies who are all siblings from the same welfare family. They scare off the “good” kids and grab all the lead roles. Things go from bad to worse, and havoc ensues. All looks lost until the 11th hour, when said bullies inexplicably and instantaneously transform into caring sweethearts once the curtain goes up on the play. The moral is that if we only accept them, the mean will turn kind and the selfish compassionate. Hey, it’s a Christmas story; it’s supposed to be miraculous.  

MacKenzie started by casting three strong actors for the adult leads; four if you include the narrating elder daughter. Schilling did an excellent job of anchoring the play as the mother who reluctantly takes on the task of directing, while Dunkelburger more than held her own in the demanding and arguably adult role as daughter and narrator. Peterson was delightfully funny as the classic, put-upon father who’d rather hide behind his paper than be involved in a kids play, but who steps up, as expected, when needed.

Perhaps the funniest and certainly most over-the-top adult performance came from Cahill as the brash, outrageous Helen Armstrong. Dressed in outré outfits even though confined to a hospital bed and wheelchair, she deftly wields the phone as her chosen weapon of control, albeit unsuccessfully. 

Equally impressive was the large cast of children, which may in part be a credit to LIT. Two of the larger roles, Imogene Herdman  (Alexis Collins) and her kid sister Gladys (Rachel Wrede) stood out, but all the children were admirable actors. While children in plays are sometimes more trouble than help, these kids were attentive, motivated, hard-working, and skilled beyond their years. In short, they were not just kids, but real actors.

The pacing was excellent, with strong, sensible blocking, culminating in the high point of the physical humor at the end of act one. As a church rehearsal devolves into chaos with a fire scare, the stage erupts with streams of frantic, interlaced, running actors, both children and adults. It’s Keystone Kops meets Marx Brothers in a superbly choreographed melee worthy of Mack Sennett, and the long, frenetic scene went off without a hitch or a single collision. 

All this took place on a clean, efficient set designed by Blake York, replete with a stunning argyle-pattern painted floor, which seemed to have no mission beyond adding panache. As always, the lighting and sound, by Alex Smith, was both clever and well blended, while Marcie Hagerman’s costumes were believable and thoroughly appropriate. Between scene changes, Music Director Melanie Stevens treated us to iconic old Christmas songs, many of which were humorously and eerily appropriate to the action.

If you’ve seen this play before, trust me, this version is way better. In fact, it may well change your mind about the wisdom of attending shows where children hold the lion’s share of the roles. Give it a shot, even if you don’t know anyone in the cast. I suspect you’ll be delightfully surprised.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
Dec. 13 to Dec. 24, 2012
Lakewood Playhouse

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