Monday, November 25, 2013

Chaos, Comedy, Christmas at the HART

Front: Sarah Felder, Back: Rachael Schoen, Grace Malloy,
Christian Vece, Yoonie Shin
By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker
HART’s current production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is probably not the best show we’ll see this holiday season, but it may well be the most enjoyable. In the lobby before the show, Director Ray Hale said “you can’t go wrong with kids” – while this is not always the case, it’s certainly true of this particular collection of quirky young performers.
Author Barbara Robinson tells her simple tale quickly, with a series of blackouts to speed the story along.  It’s time for the annual Christmas pageant, and the regular director, Mrs. Armstrong, is out of commission. A team of locals gang up on fellow mom Grace Bradley, who reluctantly agrees to direct the show. Her husband, Roberto, who is no fan of the annual production, even more reluctantly agrees to help out by shepherding the shepherds and baby angels. The casting process falls apart when the Herdmans, who are the worst kids in the world, demand lead roles. Nobody dares oppose this group of cigar-smoking, lying, stealing, violent thugs, whose marginal grasp of the basic Christmas story casts the Wise Men as spies and Herod in need of a thorough beating. Of course, a little good old-fashioned holiday magic transforms the Herdmans, who end up giving their Christmas welfare ham to the baby Jesus (so much more practical than myrrh!). 
Gladys Herdman puts pressure on the narrator, Maxine
Kimberly Auran, Grace Malloy
Even with 30 talented kids on stage, there are a few real standouts. The role of sneaky little prig Alice Wendleken was filled on opening night by Rylie Bartell, who brings a gleeful abandon to her appalling self-righteousness.  While each of the four baby angels is disturbingly cute, we couldn’t take our eyes off of four-year-old Zebulen King, whose irrepressible squirming, bobbing, and weaving leaves the whole audience giggling.  Beth Bradley (played by Libby Solheim) keeps the story moving along with her concise and insightful commentary.
And then there are the Herdmans – especially Imogene (Sarah Felder) as history’s least maternal Mary. Felder’s transformation from belligerent and neglected delinquent to loving symbol of maternal devotion is surprisingly touching, and has a salutary effect on the rest of the wild Herdman brood. Younger sister Gladys Herdman (Grace Malloy) steals several scenes with her exuberant take on the Angel of the Lord – not so much a Heavenly Messenger as a “Shazam!” shouting Dark Knight.

Several of the adults (in particular, Molly Stuckey as Grace Bradley, Luis Ventura as Roberto Bradley, and Sue Ellen Christenson as Mrs. Armstrong) give excellent performances, but this show is all about the children who animate and illustrate the tale.
If you need a little Christmas, start at the HART. The quiet beauty of the set’s stained-glass windows and velvet hangings evoke a peaceful sanctuary – in direct contrast to the frenetic energy of the pageant preparations. Pianist Alice Dalrymple provides flawless accompaniment to pageant participants, and holiday music by the STAGES show choir starts the evening and sets the proper tone – reverent, yet slightly chaotic. The tech crew literally and figuratively shines despite the challenge of over 100 separate lighting cues – another tribute to Director Ray Hale’s patience and attention to detail.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro through December 15th, with shows at 7:30 pm on November 22, 23, 29, 30, December 6, 7, 13, 14 and 2:00 pm November 24, December 1, 8, 15.

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