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In Youtheatre’s Best Christmas Pageant Ever, the “bad guys” have all the fun

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


If you want evidence that The Best Christmas Pageant Ever isn’t your typical Christmas story filled with holiday cheer and treacle, look no further than what Erin Kucker, who plays one of the baby angels, has to say when asked what her favorite line is. “I get to say: ‘I heard they wrote this really terrible word on the back of Courtney Brown’s favorite turtle, and now she can’t take it to the 4-H pet show.’”

The “they” defacing turtle shells with terrible words in Fort Wayne Youtheatre’s production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever are the horrible Herdmans. In the play, these six obnoxious offspring of the town’s “bad” family have hijacked the annual church Christmas pageant and nabbed all the plum parts. “I’m the kid who ruins it all,” says Jack Ankenbruck, who plays Charlie Bradley. “I end up telling the Herdmans about the pageant, making it sound like it’s so good, so they get interested. That’s when they go in and it gets all messed up.”

Based on Barbara Robinson’s popular children’s book, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever might be closer to A Christmas Story in its tone and humor, at least in the beginning. According to the play’s narrator, the six wild Herdman children “…lied, stole, and smoked cigars, even the girls. They talked dirty and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain, and set fire to Fred Shumaker’s old broken-down tool house.”

Some of the Herdman’s rambunctious spirit seems to have infected the cast. Not that they’re smoking cigars or swearing, but they’re boiling over with enthusiasm for the play and their parts in it.

And how bad are the Herdmans? Really bad, according the young actors and actresses in the play. “One of them puts me in a headlock, and they throw me around,” says Joey Adams, who plays David.

Nine-year-old Brianna Bowman, making her Youtheatre debut as Gladys, the youngest Herdman girl, nods solemnly. “I’m really mean,” says Bowman, who is sharing the stage with her real-life mother Amy (as Mrs. Slocum) and brother Alex (who plays lunch-stealing Leroy Herdman). “They say (Gladys) bites, but I don’t really do that in the play. I push and shove people around. It’s fun to play a mean person. You can do whatever you want.”

Kelsey Kupferer, as ring-leader Imogene Herdman, concurs. “It’s soo much fun playing a bad person,” she says. “I’m usually not that way at all…”

But the Hermans aren’t the only characters in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever engaging in bad behavior. There’s the son of the church leader, Elmer Hopkins (played by Tre Moeckle) who Moeckle says really gets on people’s nerves. “I like this part because it sounds like me,” he adds, laughing.

Then there’s the other church-going townsfolk, who can be just as nasty in their own way. Courtney Litchfield plays young Alice Wendelken. “No one likes me because I’m really snotty,” she says. “I write a diary of what the Herdmans do, and someone steals it, and there’s a big argument.”

Caught in between is the play’s narrator, Beth Bradley, who compares the foul-mouthed Herdmans to “those South American fish who strip your bones clean.” At the same time finding the goody-two shoes church families a little hard to take. “She (Beth) is a normal girl,” says Sydney Norwalk, who plays Bradley. “She doesn’t like the Herdmans, but she’s really annoyed with Alice (Wendelken), because she’s so snotty.”

Though The Best Christmas Pageant Ever starts off with bad behavior all around, the end of the story is much different, with both the Herdmans and the other townspeople learning about the meaning of Christmas. “It’s a very moving play,” says Youtheatre director Harvey Cocks. “These tough kids come in and find themselves involved in the Christmas pageant, and suddenly they get the message.”

Joey Adams (David) adds: “Audiences will learn that people can change, because the Herdmans are really bad kids, and in the end, they’re a little nicer.”

According to Harvey Cocks, this year marks the 18th time Youtheatre has performed The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, and the first time Cocks has directed a production of this play since 1998. “The play has sort of become a minor classic of its era,” he says. “It’s a very appealing, entertaining way to present the story of Christmas to children.”

Fort Wayne Youtheatre presents The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
Saturday, December 17, 2 pm
Sunday, December 18, 2 pm
Arts United Center
303 East Main Street
Tickets on sale starting December 12. Call (260) 422-4226 between noon – 4 pm for tickets.

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