By Bob Helbig
There’s nothing quite as magical as seeing Christmas through the eyes of children. And that’s the charm of the Village Playhouse of Wauwatosa’s holiday production.
“The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” based on the 1972 book by Barbara Robinson, features nearly 20 children, from ages 4 to 13. The big cast fills a small stage with Christmas spirit and, amid light situational humor, compels the audience to reflect on the true meaning of the season.
The play, which opened Friday at the North Hall of Christ King School, 2806 N. Swan Blvd. in Wauwatosa, continues this week at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday.
It’s a show within a show that focuses on a family with six children, the Herdmans, who are regarded in their town as “the worst kids in the history of the world.” They strike fear in the organizers of the annual church Christmas pageant when they infiltrate the auditions, looking for snacks, and bully their way into leading roles of the show, which tells the story of the birth of Jesus.
The bossiest of the mischief-makers, Imogene Herdman (Zoey Zanowski), plays Mary, and ruffian brother Ralph Herdman (Preston Carr) plays Joseph. New pageant director Grace Bradley (Linda Hake) has the unenviable task of breaking in her newfound thespians while simultaneously explaining to them the origins of Christ.
Zanowski is outstanding as Imogene, playing the role with fearsomeness and sensitivity as her character is transformed by the story of Christmas. Carr is a delight, too, bringing rambunctiousness, big expressions and brassy humor to his role.
But the star of the show is Eliza Hake, who as little Gladys Herdman plays the Angel of the Lord in the pageant. She delivers the news of the birth of Jesus with a sonic declaration and a sense of wonderment.
Adults fill the spotlight, too. Hake, who in real life is a school administrator and Eliza’s mom, has a developed rapport with children that serves her well; in her voice and body language, she commands and withstands the children, including the Herdman clan.
She also has terrific chemistry with her onstage husband, Bob, played by Dino Anagnostopoulos. As a child, Anagnostopoulos played Ralph Herdman in a production of “Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” and he returns with great comic timing as a cheery but exasperated dad.
This production comes with some terrific extras, among them carolers Frank Schultz, Terry Elliott and Phil Enockson, who augment the show by offering humorous narration through song. At intermission, church choir members lead the audience in a few Christmas carols.
At the end of the two-hour show, the cast leads the audience in “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” It’s one last reminder that the birth of Jesus is still worth shouting about.
Bob Helbig’s 11-year-old daughter, Mia, plays Maxine in the production of “Best Christmas Pageant Ever.”