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Christmas goes to the wild Herdmans

In Youtheatre’s Best Christmas Pageant Ever, even the “good guys” learn a lesson

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


For a story that centers around a church Christmas pageant, there’s not a lot of harmony, generosity and seasonal goodwill going on in the Fort Wayne Youtheatre’s production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.

Based on Barbara Robinson’s popular children’s book, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever pits the wild, foul-mouthed Herdman children — who, according the Beth Bradley, the story’s narrator (played by Sarah Johnson) “…lied, stole, and smoked cigars, even the girls” — against the snotty community leaders in charge of the annual Christmas Pageant at the church. When Mrs. Armstrong (played by Charlotte Janovyak), who typically runs the Christmas pageant with an iron hand, laid up in the hospital with a broken leg, it falls upon more mild-mannered Grace Bradley (Mary Callen) to head up the Christmas pageant.

But the play wouldn’t be as funny or interesting, or have endured as such a holiday classic (this is the 20th year in a row Youtheatre has performed the play), if it was simply a story of how to tame the Herdmans, the nastiest family in town. Sure, the Herdmans are bad — Leroy Herdman (Jonah Harry) steals Charlie Bradley’s (Duncan Smith) lunch, and Imogene Herdman (Lindsey Lehman) smokes cigars in the bathroom and is unashamed when someone calls the fire department on her. “It’s pretty nice playing a jerk,” says Sarah Gillie, who plays Gladys, another member of the Herdman clan. “I’m very loud and pushy.”

“I also get to run around on stage a lot, which is fun, because at school, they’re like ‘don’t run,’ but they encourage me to run here,” she adds, laughing.

The whole reason the Herdmans invade the Christmas pageant in the first place because they think they can cadge free food there. And they intimidate and bully the other cast members, like Elmer Hopkins (Sam Fisher), the reverand’s son. “Elmer is kind of in his shell,” Fisher says. “Gladys yells at me and I get all scared and shocked.”

Yet the truth is, the supposed “good people” aren’t much better. They’re snobby, their kids backtalk, and they really don’t like other people crashing their party. Laura Bessette, who plays the bossy Alice Wendelken, says her character is sort of typical of how the respectable people behave. “The Herdmans are more out there,” she says. “They don’t care if the adults get them in trouble. Alice is good in front of adults but mean and pushy when they’re not around.”

Danielle Lenz plays Mrs. McCarthy, another one of the “good people” who actually sounds a little bit like a grown up Alice. “She’s doesn’t really like the idea of someone else taking over the Christmas pageant,” Lenz says. “She’s a snotty person, sort of the ringleader of the ladies groups. I call the fire department on Imogene.”

In the middle of all this is Grace Bradley and her daughter Beth (Sarah Johnson). “She (Grace) tries really hard to make it the best she can, but the Herdmans come in and seem like they’re going to ruin it,” says Mary Callen, who plays Grace Bradley. “I think she’s trying to make peace, trying to make it good, but she’s frustrated.”

“She’s a good kid,” says Sarah Johnson of Beth, the play’s narrator. “She doesn’t like the Herdmans much at the beginning, but she also gets really annoyed at her friend Alice, because she’s so narrow-minded.”

She’s also annoyed at her father (Tony Schafer) who really, really wants nothing to do with the pageant, and her brother Charlie, who… well, I’ll let Duncan Smith tell you about Charlie “He’s the annoying younger child,” Smith says. “He doesn’t want to try anything new. He’s like his father. He doesn’t want to have anything to do with it.”

Though The Best Christmas Pageant Ever features some bad behavior all around (which is one of the reasons it’s so funny), the end of the story is much different, with both camps — the wild Herdmans and the prissy church-goers — learning about the true meaning of Christmas.

Fort Wayne Youtheatre presents The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
Saturday, December 15, 2 pm
Sunday, December 16, 2 pm
Arts United Center
303 East Main Street
Tickets: $12/adult; $8 students. Tickets on sale starting December 10. Call (260) 422-4226 between noon – 4 pm.

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©2018 Fort Wayne Reader. All rights Reserved.