“The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical” may be the first play written for kids that would inspire me to buy the original cast album, if there were one.
Even as an elementary schooler, “musicals” to me meant “Guys and Dolls” or “My Fair Lady:” shows where numbers advanced the plot, made us understand characters better or feel for them more deeply, and contained tunes that imprinted themselves on our brains.
Since coming back onto the theater beat in 2008, musicals for kids have usually been narratives in which songs were diverting interludes, a chance to break up wordy portions of the script. They can be entertaining – I’m still smiling over a hip-hop Founding Fathers number in “Grace for President” – but their absence would rarely leave gaping holes in the experience.
Not so with the world premiere of “Pageant” at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte. The show would be vastly less interesting if music and lyrics by Jahnna Beecham and Malcolm Hillgartner were yanked and the source material went naked. That’s remarkable, as the show adapts strong source material indeed: Barbara Robinson’s beloved book, in which the young pariahs of a town transform the staid annual Christmas pageant and are transformed by it.
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When once-raucous Imogene Herdman (spirited Carlyn Head) sings the gentle, country-flavored “On a Night Like This” in the manger scene, the mood and the melody stick with you. When the entire company rocks out to “Die, Herod Die,” you slip into the tune and rhythm at once.
Beecham and Hillgartner, who also wrote the book, set the show in the late ’50s/early ’60s, when Robinson would have been raising her own children. The cocktail dresses, white gloves and TV dinners look as quaint today as a Smithsonian exhibit. But the era produced a remarkable cross-section of pop music – gushy ballads, girl-group pop, bouncy simple rock tunes – and those find a home here. (Choreographer Ron Chisholm’s admiration for “Bye Bye Birdie” also comes into play.)
Director Adam Burke and the writers don’t downplay the nastiness of the Herdmans: They set fires, shoplift, smoke (Imogene likes a cigar), and “They’ll find you and they’ll pound you ’til your face is black and blue.” We laugh when one asks, “Do you need a baby Jesus? I can get one from the grocery store. There’s a lot of them, sitting around in carts.” But he might.
Yet their father left long ago, their single mom works overtime, and their angry assertiveness comes from fear of rejection. Their name says it: They are herd men (or kids), defensive about their poverty and ignorance and striking out at people who think they’re inferior. They’re redeemable through kindness, a message always worth hearing.
The cast of more than two dozen includes mostly young actors, a rarity these days at CTC (and a welcome one, when they are uniformly strong). Ashley Goodson, an actress new to me, stands out as the charitable adult who takes over the pageant and finds the spirit of the season amid a chaotic whirl of selfishness and judgmental behavior.
‘The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical’
When: The musical runs through Dec. 23, mostly at 7:30 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 4 p.m. Sunday. Fair warning: It is the highest-selling production in the company’s 68-year history. There’s a sensory-friendly performance for folks on the autism-Asperger’s spectrum at 4 p.m. Dec. 11 and an ASL performance for the hard-of-hearing at 11 a.m. Dec. 17.
Where: ImaginOn, 300 E. Seventh St.