by Tess Mize
“There are no small parts, only small actors!” Enchanted Playhouse’s current production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is full of “small” actors (most of the roles are children, after all), but there’s nothing small about the level of talent or dedication in this cast. The show, which opened on Friday in Visalia and runs through December 8, is a delightful production that is sure to put you in the Christmas spirit.
The narrator, Beth Bradley (played with confidence by Hannah Suggs), introduces the audience right away to the Herdmans—a family of mean-spirited bullies who terrorize the other children. She also describes the annual Christmas pageant at the church in town, which is strong-armed into existence every year by Mrs. Armstrong. But this year, Mrs. Armstrong is laid up in the hospital, and Beth’s mother, Grace, is pressured into running the show. Soon after, Beth’s little brother, Charlie (a spunky Jonah Munyon), tries to stand up to one of the Herdmans. He utters what is probably the only word that could ever get the Herdmans into a church: refreshments. All six of them show up to the first rehearsal, and mayhem ensues. Grace is in a panic, the Ladies Aid Society gossips away, and Imogene Herdman smokes cigars in the ladies room in her Mary costume! How in the world will this ever turn out to be the best Christmas pageant ever?
This show is wonderfully cast, and the audience can see that everyone on stage is having great fun filling their respective roles. The Bradley parents complement each other well—Janae Long’s Grace is equal parts frantic and careworn, grounded by a constant note of motherly concern. Kelly Ventura, as the easygoing father, Bob, has some very funny moments—and he definitely makes the most of them.
But the real stars of this show are, of course, the kids. In addition to the strong performances of Hannah Suggs and Jonah Munyon, all the kids bring great energy and fun to their roles. Alexandra Milliorn-Feller tackles the role of the headstrong Imogene Herdman with dedication, and her softer moments send the audience reaching for tissues. The Herdman boys, played by Spencer Simoes (Ralph), Anthony Howard (Leroy), Sloane Vanciel (Claude), and Ethan Alburger (Ollie), clearly have a great deal of fun—whether they’re helping another character “break a leg” or playing catch with the baby Jesus. Summer Sills gives a spirited performance as the littlest Herdman, Gladys. Gracie Richardson is spot-on in her portrayal of the snotty, holier-than-thou Alice Wendleken, and her comic moments are among the best in the show (although it’s hard to beat the moment when almost the entire cast screams offstage and out through the house, as firemen storm the church). The rest of the children, from the shepherds to the wise men to the tiniest angel in the choir, all do a great job adding personality and life to the scenes. In the pageant scene, Donovan Powers steps forward for a beautifully sung verse of “Silent Night,” silencing the pandemonium that came before and bringing the focus back to the Christmas story.
Co-directors Tim Budz and Debbie Hardin have a wonderful production on their hands. The set design and costumes are well done, but simple enough to not steal focus from the performance of the actors. What results is a well-balanced show with plenty of heart, and Christmas spirit to spare.
If you have a chance, don’t miss The Best Christmas Pageant Ever! Four performances remain: December 6 at 7 p.m., December 7 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., and December 8 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $8 for the evening performances, and $5 for the matinees. Tickets are available online at www.enchantedplayhouse.org. The Enchanted Playhouse performs at the Main Street Theater, 307 East Main St. in Visalia, CA. You can also call (559) 739-4600 for tickets and information.