“The Best Christmas Pageant Ever”

Peak to Peak Players group presents heartwarming hilarity

by Patty Unruh

“Hey! Unto you a child is born!” So listen up, people! The angel has a message for you.

It’s the Christmas story as you’ve never heard it before. The Peak to Peak Players group (Players) is presenting five performances of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” this month. Last weekend, they played at St. James United Methodist Church on December 7th, 8th, and 9th. If you missed these outstanding presentations, you still can catch one on December 15th or 16th at 2:00 p.m. both days at The Backdoor Theatre in Nederland, 750 Highway 72.

As visitors entered St. James, they were given a musical welcome by choir members from Gilpin County School. Concessions were available downstairs. The church was beautifully adorned with a huge Christmas tree and an altar hung with garland. In the sanctuary, where the play was performed, pianist Jamie Shaak set the mood with traditional Christmas hymns played on the keyboard. “Backstage” areas were actually set up at the front, using 1×4 wooden walls painted to look like presents.

“The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” is directed by the Players’ Jocelyn Brown, assisted by Kristi Curry, and is based on American author Barbara Robinson’s best-selling novel by the same name. The play has a message that pricks the conscience but is given in a humorous way, which sometimes helps get the point across better than sermonizing.

“Christmas is a magical time of joy and acceptance. The characters in the play remind us to embrace these qualities,” Brown says.

The company included young children, middle and high school students, and adults playing the roles of harried pageant director, mild-mannered dad, bullies, frustrated kids, a resentful “Mary wanna-be,” and gossiping biddies. As with other recent productions of the Players, the performance was remarkably well done, and the actors deserved the standing ovation they got.

The story focuses on the Herdmans, six horrible children who bully the other kids, lie, steal, smoke, and generally engage in any kind of juvenile delinquency imaginable. They are poor and ragged to boot. Everyone agrees that they are the world’s worst kids.

The story is told from the viewpoint of a child, Beth Bradley. Her brother Charlie tries to avoid the Herdmans.

“There’s one safe place – church,” he declares. “That’s my favorite thing about church. There are no Herdmans.”

Charlie – and everyone else – is in for surprise.

It’s time for the annual Christmas pageant, run by overbearing Mrs. Armstrong, who has insisted that it be done the same way every year. However, this worthy woman is in the hospital with a broken leg, so the other women of the church press Beth’s mother into directing the pageant.

Neither Beth nor Charlie nor any of the other kids want to perform the same old roles in the pageant. No one volunteers – until the Herdmans hear that there are snacks available in Sunday school. They visit the church, learn about the pageant, and decide they all want roles as Mary, Joseph, the three wise men, and the angel of the Lord. They’ve never even heard the Christmas story before, so they insist on hearing it all straight from the Bible and ask all kinds of questions.

“No room in the inn? They didn’t have room for JESUS?!” shouts an outraged Imogene Herdman, who is playing Mary.

“Shazam!” bellows the Angel of the Lord, a/k/a young Gladys Herdman, who is convinced that her character is something out of Marvel Comics.

Of course, everyone is afraid the Herdmans will ruin the whole thing. No one will allow their baby to be handled by Imogene, so baby Jesus is played by a doll. The kids keep fighting with one another and never complete a whole rehearsal. Through it all, Mrs. Bradley has faith that this will be the best Christmas pageant ever, but she is pulling her hair out as she tries to lead the practices.

During the dress rehearsal, Imogene smokes a cigar in the ladies’ room, prompting someone to call the fire department. The whole church is in an uproar. Even the minister wonders if the pageant should be called off.

“Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me,’ but I’m not sure He meant the Herdmans,” she sighs.

On Christmas Eve, the church is jammed full with folks curious to see what the Herdmans will do. The candles are lit, the carols are sung, and the Scripture is read as usual. To be sure, the young delinquents put their own interpretation on things. However, they have been changed by what they have learned. Instead of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, they bring a ham from their welfare basket. Imogene, tenderly clutching the baby Jesus doll, begins to cry. Gladys Herdman, as the Angel of the Lord, joyfully shouts the good news: “Hey! Unto you a child is born! Come and see him!”

Everyone talks afterward about how the play was different this year. Unbelievably, the Herdmans actually caught on to the true meaning of Christmas and related to it in a real way. Because of them, the story was fresh and beautiful to all.

“Jesus belongs to all of us,” Mrs. Bradley realizes in wonder.

What should have been the worst Christmas pageant became the best one ever.

When the final bow was taken, Santa Claus put in a surprise appearance while Jamie Shaak boogied the ivories with “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”

Director Brown says “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” was chosen by default. “It was available, and we could afford it!” she smiles. She notes that it fits the Christmas message of universal goodwill.

“There’s a lot of transformation that takes place,” she says. “The Herdmans, Mrs. Bradley, even the whole community and the other kids, who find out they can work with the Herdmans after all.”

There are a lot of hours that go into putting together a production of this caliber. Auditions were held in September, with rehearsals beginning at the end of that month. The cast worked four hours a day, every day, for the week leading up to the performances.

One prominent element of the play is a lot of shouting and physical contact during the roughhousing scenes. The director’s challenge was how to choreograph everything so it looked spontaneous and natural and yet not get out of control. Over time, these scenes began to flow.

Brown met up with the Players group last spring. She is from New York, has done a lot of directing, and has written about theatre practices. She has lived in our area for the past 30 years and notes that until recently, there hasn’t been consistent theatre. She was pleased to become involved with the Players.

“I love working with the kids. A lot of them here are seasoned performers and are really gifted. They are familiar with how theatre works.”

She gave kudos to assistant director Kristi Curry. “She’s invaluable – very motivated and keeps everything organized. Especially at the end, she helped with all the details, costumes, hair, and picking up necessary equipment.”

The cast is Tom Gagnon, Jacquelyn O’Brien, Ashley L. Somers, Logan Prewitt, Warren Hardman, Archer O’Brien, Lance Prewitt, Juliet Shaak Ragan, Ruby Gustafson, Keegan Curry, Aspen Somers, Jordanna Gagnon, Kaylee Harmsen, Lynda Icenogle, Kristi Curry, Kris Icenogle, Kayce Harmsen, Mary Goodman, Aucklynn Sacco, Killian O’Brien, Tammy Gagnon, and Maybel Icenogle.

There are many to thank for their roles: set designers Kipp Nash, Tom Gagnon, Archer O’Brien, and Warren Hardman; St. James Church and Pastor Dick Vickery; JD Paschke; Timberline Fire Stations 3, 4, and 6 and firemen Chip Smith, Liam Donoghue, and Kevin Schneider, Lenny Cowles and The Backdoor Theatre; Gilpin School music teacher Misty Ebers; and Marcel Martin.

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