Home Nativity scenes come in two varieties. There's the bone china, look-but-don't-touch set, placed safely out of children's reach.
The other is made of tougher stuff, grubby from years of exploration by tiny hands and so much a part of the family that nobody cries sacrilege if Joseph does double duty as an action figure or Mary sets up temporary housekeeping in the Barbie dream house.
"The Best Christmas Pageant Ever" at the Moulton Theater is definitely the second type. In the hands of a capable, mixed-aged cast, Barbara Robinson's 1982 stage adaptation of her popular children's tale borrows the eyes and hearts of a town's youngest outcasts for a look at the Christmas story in a new, and surprisingly touching, light.
It's currently in a sold-out engagement presented by the Laguna Playhouse Youth Theater and directed by Kathy Cannarozzi-Harris.
The story revolves around the Herdmans. For those unfamiliar with Robinson's book, the six Herdman siblings are rowdy, scruffy and universally loathed thorns in the side of the Mayberry-like town they live in.
Their parents are never seen nor even mentioned in the play. They're a wild bunch, fending for themselves and grabbing attention--and other kids' lunches--whenever they can.
When one Herdman hears tell of free snacks at Sunday school, the sibs get religion. Goaded by big sister Imogene, they bully their way into the plum roles in the town Christmas pageant, terrorizing baby angels and setting the church biddies into a tailspin. It isn't till the dust settles and the last carol is sung that the Herdmans' real role is appreciated.
"We thought the play was about Jesus, but that was only part of it," Beth, the young narrator, tells us. "It was about a new baby, and his mother and father who were in a whole lot of trouble--no money, no place to go, no doctor, nobody they knew. And then, arriving from the East . . . some rich friends. Because of the Herdmans, it was a whole new story."
Clocking in at just over 90 minutes, the two-act show dragged a bit early in Saturday's matinee, almost as if the characters were counting on the arrival of the Herdmans to get things rolling.
Adults Nancy Gibbs, as Grace Bradley, and particularly Jeremiah Archbold, as husband Bob, were bland in the opening moments. It wasn't clear until later that their milquetoast manners were supposed to be sendups of the stereotypically perfect '50s WASP parents.
Beth Bradley, played by Ashley Eskew, serves well as the play's conscience. Already mortified by the fact that her mom is directing the show, she's the first to cry foul when the Herdmans join the cast.
But as she watches the would-be heathens listen raptly to her mother tell the Christmas story, she begins to change her tune. Wonder of wonders, she even defends them against the gibes of prissy Alice (Chelsea Alexandra Vann), who tirelessly records the Herdmans' sins so "the Ladies Aid Society will know what really goes on here!"
Ashley Weber is a firecracker as Imogene, the ringleader who purloins the role of Mary from Alice by threatening to stick a pussy willow so far into her ear that it will flower all next spring.
Anna Couturier also sizzles as little sister Gladys, who turns the sacrosanct role of the messenger of the Lord into an avenging superhero--Shazam! She rockets on stage with the Good News, stirring up drowsy shepherds with a poke of her star-on-a-stick and the proclamation, "Jesus is born! He's in the barn! Go see him!"
But be prepared to arm-wrestle Imogene to get a peek.
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* "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,"
Moulton Theater, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Ends Dec. 23. Remaining performances sold out. (949) 497-2787. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
Nancy Gibbs: Grace Bradley
Jeremiah Archbold: Bob Bradley
Ashley Eskew: Beth Bradley
Jared Wigdor: Charlie Bradley
Justin Klinchurch-Morrison: Ralph Herdman
Ashley Weber: Imogene Herdman
Aaron Potter: Leroy Herdman
Andrew Martinez: Claude Herdman
Nick Mirman: Ollie Herdman
Anna CouturierQ: Gladys Herdman
Patricia Thompson: Mrs. Armstrong
Chelsea Alexandra Vann: Alice
Valerie Sullivan: Maxine
A Laguna Playhouse Youth Theater production of the play based on the book by Barbara Robinson. Directed by Kathy Cannarozzi-Harris. Music director: Diane King Vann. Set and lighting design: Don Gruber. Costume design by Marilyn McElroy. Sound design by Dave Edwards.