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First Stage’s ‘Best Christmas Pageant Ever’ saves its best for last

A young woman with a knit scarf wrapped around her head cradles a doll while singing on stage during a theater production.
Paul Ruffolo
First Stage
Lorelei Wesselowski and Terrance Ilion, Jr. from First Stage's production of "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical."

Think of the longest joke you’ve ever heard (this one comes to mind). Think about the meandering setup, the chuckle or two getting you through that first part, and the release/relief when the punchline finally came.

That’s the most accurate way to describe what it was like watching First Stage’s production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical during its opening weekend at the Todd Wehr Theater. I can’t recall having another live-theater experience like it, and to be honest I’m having trouble figuring out how to put it into words even now, four days later. But here goes.

Some context to start: It’s been more than a half-century since Barbara Robinson’s classic children’s book was first released and more than four decades since she adapted it for the stage as a play. During the first two-thirds or so of First Stage’s production, those years are very evident in the source material.

The plot unfolds in a nonspecific town during a nonspecific time period, although there’s a general “early 1960s” feel to everything. Phone conversations happen on clunky handpieces attached to comically long cords. TV dinners are un-foiled with excitement. Bouffant hair is prevalent.

Amid these accessories, we meet our featured families: The straight-outta-Mayfield Bradleys and the seemingly destined-for-juvie Herdmans. Over the course of that initial two-thirds of the production, we get to know them and the rest of the players as a pretty standard story rolls along. The kids in town live in fear of the Herdmans, a few well-meaning grown-ups preach patience (literally, in the case of Reverend Hopkins), and the ne’er-do-wells insert themselves in the Sunday School Christmas pageant.

I’ll pause here to caution you that the next part will seem, well, critical. But hang with me for the payoff (remember the joke analogy).

To this point, it’s hard to overlook how dated things come across. The words “cute” and “quaint” came to mind repeatedly while certain standout performances elicited those chuckles I mentioned earlier. Among the young performers, Lorelei Wesselowski brought serious swagger to the role of ringleader Imogene Herdman, while Taylor Arnstein embraced Alice Wendleken’s snottiness in all the best ways. For the adults, Lachrisa Grandberry’s “holier than thou” Helen Armstrong provided bright moments of bluster, and J.T. Backes was a steady voice of reason as Reverend Hopkins.

But the biggest weight fell on the shoulders of Karen Estrada as matriarch and unwitting volunteer pageant director Grace Bradley. And she didn’t flinch. Her performance delivered the loudest laughs and pulled me back in when things started to feel too treacly.

A cast of performers in colorful costumes sing as a group during a theater production.
Paul Ruffolo
First Stage
Karen Estrada (center) shines as Grace Bradley in First Stage’s production of "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical."

Then … the pageant.

After a pleasant enough experience thus far, the tonal shift when the kids presented the Christmas pageant was incredible. It felt like someone changed the channel from Nick at Night to Adult Swim.

Estrada sprinted around the stage searching for “missing” cast members. Mila Rodriguez as Gladys Herdman was an Angel of the Lord that would’ve made Linus Van Pelt hide under his blanket. More than anyone, however, Wesselowski owned the stage — first with a bout of over-the-top labor while “giving birth” to baby Jesus, then leading a tender tune that delivered the emotional resolution and put a tidy bow on the whole thing.

The musical's message, of course, is not a joke: the dangers of judging people you don’t know and wildly assigning blame before you know the facts, as well as the rewards of actually talking to someone instead of assuming you know what they’ll say. But the lessons feel more impactful because of that punchline-like pageant performance. It jolts you into reflecting on the setup and picking out the moments that mattered.

The production as a whole skews traditional, for sure. But it’s holiday entertainment that does, indeed, entertain. And, considering its message, that should always have a place around this time of year.

First Stage’s production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical runs now through Dec. 24 at the Marcus Performing Arts Center’s Todd Wehr Theater. There’s a “Pay What You Choose” performance at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 30; a sensory-friendly performance at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 9, and a sign-language interpreted performance at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 17. For more information, including a full schedule and ticket prices, visit the First Stage website.