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!

First Stage Takes A Lambeau Leap With Dream Quickie! Dream

Milwaukee’s premiere children’s theater celebrates their 37th year by opening the 2023/24 with a world premiere, Dream Quickie! Dream…a personal and rewarding play for young people based on events in the life of Green Bay Packers star, Donald ‘Quickie’ Driver! The play is written by Gloria Bond Clunie and directed by Dimonte Henning!

Tiago Patterson and Denzel Taylor in DREAM, QUICKIE! DREAM! First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

This is a fast paced story featuring a very tired Packer’s version of Donald Driver as the father of a new born, and the youthful and hopeful middle school aged Quickie driver. Their interactions are sometimes ethereal, sometimes in dreams, sometimes stories told by father to infant, and sometimes in apparent real time. If you blink you will miss it or worse, miss the transition from one reality to the next. And you don’t want to miss a thing because this is a very meaningful story around dreams. And working hard to fulfill those dreams. But also the importance of friendship, family, love, teamwork, and owning your responsibilities. All told with text but in the best First Stage tradition, music and dance, both solo and ensemble!

Patrice L. Hood (far left), Caiden Chambers (center), Allen D. Edge (far right) and cast in DREAM, QUICKIE! DREAM! First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

As always there are two casts that alternate. And the majority of the cast is enthusiastic talented young people with just a few adults who guide the way. So depending on when you attend you may see the Lambeau cast like I did or the Lombardi cast! See the playbill below for individual cast members.

Tiago Patterson, Patrice L. Hood, and Allen D. Edge (rear) in DREAM, QUICKIE! DREAM! First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

You got to what? WORK IT!!

But the story provides us insight into the struggles that Donald Driver overcame to reach his dream. From a tough neighborhood in Houston through adults not believing he was big enough to play football despite his obvious desire, how he put in the effort to achieve his dream, how he worked at his school work as well as his football, and how at times, like any youngster, he lost sight of his responsibilities. And we also celebrate his friendship with Billy, another star on the middle school football team and how they both respond to disappointment when Billy’s family moves away before the big game. There is a lot to learn here…a lot to appreciate. Epic!

Shaun Brown and Caiden Chambers in DREAM, QUICKIE! DREAM! First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

And I’d like mention another of First Stage’s real strengths: as always the set and back drops are just eye catchingly beautiful and enhance the story line from the moment the lights come up! This one elicited two of the three questions from the audience during the post play talk back.

And one more important thing because I missed the memo: Wear your Packer gear!!!

And yes, Donald Driver has been involved and supportive of Dream Quickie! Dream!

photo courtesy of First Stage

Dream Quickie! Dream is being performed at the Marcus Center’s Todd Wehr Theater, a large enough and cozy enough venue for the audience to feel close to the action. The play runs 75 minutes plus a 15 minute intermission. It is a story for ages 7 and up but there is a warning that there is some implied violence and flashing lights are used a number of instances.

Ticket and additional information here!

Extra credit reading: Playbill

We’re Jammin’ at Bob Marley’s Three Birds At First Stage

And I hope you like jammin’, too!

The First Stage shows are always crazy fun and feature colorful sets and costuming and enthusiastic talented performers. And Three Little Birds is no different and this is maybe my favorite of the season…but that may be a personal bias…since I love Bob Marley’s music.

The focus of the story by Cedella Marley is a young Jamaican lad named Ziggy. And based on his limited life experience, Ziggy is nervous about the dangers he perceives to exist in the big real world outside his home…so he prefers to remain in his home and focus on the weather (one of his fears is hurricanes) and news on his TV. But his mother and friend, Nansi, eventually coax him out into Jamaica!

Cynthia Cobb and Julius Newman in Bob Marley’s THREE LITTLE BIRDS. courtesy of First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

And unsurprisingly, Ziggy’s best friend is a bird…a very active and happy bird…Dr. Bird, incredibly brought to life on the stage by Ogunde Tremayne. What a treat to watch Dr. Bird aid Ziggy in breaking out of his fears and enter the world. And Tremayne really brings the character to life through his acting and singing and very fluid dancing. I found myself focusing on Dr. Bird rather than Ziggy whenever Tremayne came on stage.

Ogunde Tremayne and Reece Davis in Bob Marley’s THREE LITTLE BIRDS. courtesy of First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

But despite the reassurances of Ziggy’s mother, Nansi, and Dr. Bird, there is one danger in Jamaica. A Duppy (a spirit from Jamaican folklore) who preys on young people to steal their hair to add to their own wig…believing that they needed new hair to maintain their strength and vigor. An activity that Duppy has been doing for centuries…and as everyone in the play states any number of times…Ziggy has beautiful perfect hair. And Duppy is stalking him but most frequently is frightened away by all of the activity that accompanies Ziggy and his friends. And Duppy is played by James Carrington, who gets just precisely right, the sly nature of Duppy and the humor written into the script around the Duppy and has just the right of sense of threat when he finally catches Ziggy lost and unaware. Another outstanding performance.

 James Carrington in Bob Marley’s THREE LITTLE BIRDS. courtesy of First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

But Ziggy and Nansi defeat the Duppy through a clue from Ziggy’s mother and Ziggy’s twist on a trick that Nansi played on him earlier. It is a proper and rewarding comeuppance for Duppy and provides a liberation for Ziggy from his earlier dilemma and malaise.

And of course the story is supported and reinforced throughout by the delightful music of Bob Marley…as the cast sings and dances between the various story vignettes. One of the off stage heroes here is choreographer Sonya Thompson whose dance pieces bring the characters to the fore and move the story along…the choreography just adds to the joy in the music.

And a shout out to Costume Designer Kenann Quander who gave us the feel of Jamaica and colors and textures to please the eye…particularly for the three birds from the title and Duppy! And Director Samantha D. Montgomery utilized the thrust stage of the Todd Wehr Theater to maximum effect, moving the actors and set to the best advantage for her story and the engagement of the audience.

Ogunde Tremayne (front) and Maya O’Day-Biddle and Amirah Muhammad in Bob Marley’s THREE LITTLE BIRDS. courtesy of First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

As always, First Stage features two casts to provide ample opportunities for their young acting corps. For Three Little Birds, the Jamaican Owls cast includes Reece Davis as Ziggy, Amirah Muhammad as Nansi, and Maya O’Day-Biddle as Tacoomah and the Jamaican Becard cast includes Julius Newman as Ziggy, Amira Harris as Nansi, and Zoe Chambers as Tacoomah. If you want to see who is on stage at any particular performance check the links below.

Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds continues at the Marcus Center’s Todd Wehr Theater through May 21, 2023. Details and ticket info here: This show is recommended for families with children 3 and older…and has a run time about of 70 minutes that includes a short intermission.

Extra credit readings:

The Playbill with cast and First Stage information!

The Three Little Birds Social Story which explains theater, acting, and the experience at Todd Wehr. A great piece for first time theater goers. And the Enrichment Guide!

Amira Harris (front) and Julius Newman, Cynthia Cobb, and Zoe Chambers in Bob Marley’s THREE LITTLE BIRDS. courtesy of First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.