“The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” is a musical currently being performed by the Fauquier Community Theatre in Warrenton, Virginia. As the show begins, angelic ladies sing beatifically of “Perfect Little Town,” but is it such a perfect little town?
By outer appearances, yes. It is a close-knit community in early 1960s America in an era of families eating together (even though it is the occasional aluminum foil TV dinner), youths wearing Davy Crockett raccoon hats and young women sporting saddles shoes and white gloves respectively. Into this community wander the Herdman children, a rowdy group of impoverished siblings who challenge their new community with their sloppy dress, bullying ways and vandalism of an aquarium.
Yet the so-called “horrible Herdmans” also unwittingly expose the flaws of this idyllic, if conformist, small-town community. The good people of the town attend church, give Christmas presents and even practice donating to charity. But they have somehow missed a crucial part of the teachings of Christmas: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity (love),” writes the apostle Paul, “I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” (1 Corinthians 13:1)
Or, as the idiom of the show states, there is more to Christmas and the Christmas spirit than gifts and holiday music.
In the show, it falls to Mrs. Bradley this year to direct the local annual Christmas pageant, a children’s dramatization of the nativity story at the community church. Chaos ensues as those “horrible Herdman” children enter.
“So this is what a church looks like,” says one. After elbowing their way into the key roles of the play over the wishes of a distraught Mrs. Bradley and her community, the Herdman children are shocked to hear that in the Christmas story, the evil king Herod wishes to kill the baby Jesus. They then engage more and more with the Christmas story, apparently for the first time. The Herdmans, enmeshed in poverty, as it turns out, have never known a conventional middle-class Christmas, and they thus react to the nativity story in unexpected ways, yet also sincere, ennobling and oddly refreshing.
Mrs. Bradley (whose first name, after all, is Grace) finds herself struck by the Herdmans’ sincerity. She and her daughter begin to see the Herdmans and their plight from a more charitable, and more Christmas-oriented, point of view.
This growing awareness and the pageant itself are threatened when a fire damages the church and the Herdman children are suspects. Will the pageant be canceled? Or is success still possible?
This production of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical” has a strong community feel, and we mean this in the best way possible, for it augments the show tremendously. Simple settings are used much like the Christmas pageant the play seeks to portray, and this works to great effect. Most of the cast is from Warrenton, Gainesville, and surrounding communities.
There are also excellent performances. Carole Tessier is excellent in her role portraying Grace Bradley. Further, several of her children are in the show, with some cast as the “church kids” and others as the “horrible Herdmans!” The show’s true-to-life characters are directed superbly by Diane King.
The costumes are outstanding, being painstaking recreations of the early 1960s fashions. The music used was very effective, making the audience members feel that they are visiting this era, featuring staples of early 1960s Christmas music, such as Frank Sinatra’s recording of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” played during the intermission. The show itself uses music to further the plot, with a few Christmas carols included as appropriate.
This reviewer found the Fauquier Community Theatre production of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical” to be not only charming but also unexpectedly moving. Part of this is due to the skill of the production itself, which wonderfully portrays a group of people encountering the Christmas story for the first time and the way that it affects both them and the surrounding community.
However, in a manner that is remarkably free of heavy-handed political messaging, the show also invites us to reflect on our attitudes when unexpectedly encountering people who are culturally or socially different from ourselves.
“The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical:” runs through Dec. 15 at the Fauquier Community Theater, 4225 Aiken Drive, Warrenton, Va., 20187. For further information, please visit http://fctstage.org/.