The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical at First Stage

Is this really the best Christmas pageant ever? Well I have it on the best authority from Helen Armstrong, the church choir director and traditional director of the play, that indeed it is!

And Helen Armstrong, as played by Lachrisa Landberry, has a magnificent grand voice and a room filling personality that just endears everyone in her presence. And she makes it known that she has definite plans and goals and doesn’t take no for answer. When we first meet Helen she is preparing to audition the children for this year’s Christmas pageant…something of a formality since it seems the same kids play the same roles each year. But Lachrisa brings us that Helen who is clearly in charge and tells us that this is how it is done!

Lachrisa Grandberry (far left), J.T. Backes (center) and cast in THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER: THE MUSICAL. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

So we the audience expect a well run typical Christmas pageant with probably a few snags and hilarious bumps in the road. Well, until: calamity strikes and Helen falls on the ice and is hospitalized. So with her don’t take no for an answer attitude, she recruits a novice director, Grace Bradley, to take over the pageant.

Maya O’Day Biddle, Karen Estrada (center), Eviana Gibbons, and cast in THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER: THE MUSICAL. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

Grace Bradley is played by Karen Estrada, who is a busy wife and mother, and defers at first but can’t resist Helen’s dynamic insistence. And soon she finds she may have bit off more than she can chew but it throws her only for a moment…and Karen brings us a Grace who finds a true Christmas story in the events around her pageant. And she brings that message back to the others in her community.

If you are familiar with First Stage or have been reading my responses to their performances, you know that they alternate between two youth casts with adult actors anchoring the productions…particularly when they are at the Todd Wehr at the Marcus Center as they are for the The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. So I wont be selecting particular actors here but there are two casts: The Kerpows and the Shazams. Here is a link to the playbill for more information on the cast!

Lorelei Wesselowski (center) and cast in THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER: THE MUSICAL. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

The drama in the story is introduced when the Herdmans are ‘mugging’ their fellow students in the cafeteria for their lunches. And Charlie Bradley lets slip that he enjoys treats in Sunday school because there are no Herdmans there to spoil the experience. And the Herdmans are the worst kids in the world…all the other kids agree on that. Well, the Herdmans extract more information from Charlie and they show up for the pageant auditions for the snacks. And they force their way into the starring roles as Grace Bradley has little control over their actions. But the rest of the town and Helen Armstrong are incensed but rehearsals go on.

J.T. Backes (front), Laura Gordon, Bree Beelow, and Michelle LoRicco in THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER: THE MUSICAL. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

At the first rehearsal, the Herdmans play free and loose with the Christmas carols and are amazed at the events around the Christmas story, which they were not familiar with. Shenanigans ensue, Herdmans smoke cigars, the pastor cancels the pageant, and eventually as more of the back story unfolds Grace reinstates the pageant and retains the Herdmans in the lead roles. Of course there is some very unusual acting to tell this version of the Christmas story but it all works out and brings us to the Best Christmas Pageant Ever! And now a bit more about First Stage’s presentation.

I think this is the largest cast that I have seen at First Stage, nearly two dozen performers on stage for the final numbers and it is a musical after all. And there are some very grand new songs here and the First Stage brings them to life with flair and full voice. You can’t help but feel happy and fulfilled when you hear them and there were a number of times where the audience added spontaneous bits of hand claps. And there is a tremendous amount of humor here, you will laugh without realizing it…even you adults! And there is a real Christmas pageant here…a stable and manger, angels, the Holy Family, shepherds, the three wise guys (sic), the star, and sheep: young actors playing sheep!

Lorelei Wesselowski and Terrance Ilion, THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER: THE MUSICAL. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

Director and choreographer Molly Rhode certainly worked hard to bring all of the parts and roles together and made magnificent music work and made this a best pageant ever! And it always amazes me that First Stage directors can keep the action going at the same time that prop furniture is being wheeled on or off set.

The costumes are marvelous here…lush colors and accurate depictions of 1950s – 1960s attire. I wore some of those outfits back in the day. I wish I had Charlie Bradley’s cowboy hat when I was 10. One of my favorite items were the holiday aprons that the three church women were wearing when they are baking holiday desserts. But all of the costumes were period perfect…even the Herdmans black black black clothing!

Karen Estrada, J.T. Backes, Lachrisa Grandberry, Chase Stoeger, Michelle LoRicco, and cast in THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER: THE MUSICAL. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

This is a very popular production, so don’t dawdle in picking up tickets. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever the Musical runs through December 24, 2023 and is recommended for children five and up and up and up! More information and tickets here!

Extra Credit Reading: a repost of the link to the Playbill

all photos courtesy of First Stage!

The Milwaukee Reps Dial M for Murder

The twisty tricky, very British, murder mystery, Dial M for Murder is currently playing on the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Quadracci Powerhouse main stage. But it’s not a whodunnit…we know exactly whodunnit…but will it be the perfect crime? The real question is how will you keep track of all of the plot twists, turns, and snags without your GPS…and when will the authorities finally figure it all out? And spoiler alert, everyone here has a secret!

The entire action in the play occurs in the living room of a married couple, the Wendices. And it is a marriage of convenience for both of them as you will see. Margo Wendice needs a handsome and ambitious husband, while Tony Wendice needs his wife’s fortune to pursue his expensive tastes. A match made in heaven? Well until things start to unwind and some secrets come to light.

Tony and Margo photo courtesy of Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

Amanda Drinkall brings us a very believable and lively Margot who seems the perfect match for Tony. But yes, she has a secret and it proves to be her undoing…as a very jealous Tony plots his revenge. Marcus Truschinski revels in bringing us the very smarmy, devious and quick witted Tony who thinks he’s going to pull of the perfect murder. Marcus never lets us see him sweat!

Maxine and Margot photo courtesy of Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

Lipica Shah is Maxine Hadley, also quick witted but deep deep logical thinker who has carefully thought out all of the reasons for murder and all of the methods of accomplishing one…well because she is a mystery writer herself and is on a need to know basis with the subject. Lipica has an emotional side too and it makes its presence known at times. Her relationship with Tony and Margot? Well she may have been the love interest of each of them it seems, certainly of Margot, but it gets complicated.

Tony and Capt Legate photo courtesy of Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

And one character with the biggest secrets is Captain Legate…lots and lots of secrets…that Tony quietly ferrets out. Alex Weisman plays the Captain as a bit of street tough and a ne’er do well staying on the down low. Tony uses Legate’s secrets to gain control but Alex doesn’t get much stage time, and I’ll let you guess why!

The Inspector, Tony, and Margot photo courtesy of Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

And finally we have Jonathan Wainwright playing Inspector Hubbard, a close to the chest rather inscrutable detective that we love from British mystery drama. And he eventually comes round to the truth by plays end but not without considerable help and prodding from Maxine.

Yes it’s a murder mystery but it is great fun! Director Laura Braza has assembled a great cast and leads them through the story without giving away whats to come and without losing the tempo and movement in the story. Very insightful direction!

Dial M for Murder was written by Frederick Knott and adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher. You may have encountered the film directed by Alfred Hitchcock in your cinema wanderings.

Squeeze this one in between your holiday play plans, you won’t be sorry. Dial M for Murder runs through December 17th, 2023. Additional information and tickets can be found HERE.

Extra Credit Reading: Program and Play Guide

Maxine and Margot photo courtesy of Milwaukee Repertory Theater.