Theater review: ‘The Best Christmas Pageant Ever’ at Asheville Community Theatre

PUTTING THE MESS IN CHRISTMAS: Shouting, fighting and a 7-year-old smoking cigars in the bathroom evolve into a happy and poignant ending in 'The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.'
PUTTING THE MESS IN CHRISTMAS: Shouting, fighting and a 7-year-old smoking cigars in the bathroom evolve into a happy and poignant ending in 'The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.' Photo by Studio Misha

Asheville Community Theatre has dusted off some sets from two years ago, assembled a new cast and welcomed the chaos and cheer that come with the holiday production The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. It runs through Sunday, Dec. 17.

Some of the character names and the turns of phrase are definitely of a bygone era — a time when the word “pregnant” was still taboo. The timeless aspects of the struggles of the poor in our society, and how even the holiest of churchgoers take a less-than-godly view of the downtrodden who show up on their doorstep, are all too current. The show humanizes without overdoing the guilt, but the point lands firmly, nonetheless.

Elliot Weiner has his hands full as director of the large, all-ages cast. Adults play parents and church busybodies, while a host of preteens fills out the ensemble of the annual church Christmas pageant, which has become all too predictable over time.

The first wrinkle occurs when the usual pageant director breaks her leg, and Grace (played by Ashley Fleming) gets drafted into service. Her family finds itself on the front lines of the holiday struggle, as son Charlie (Jack Womack) avoids abuse at the hands of a school bully (Ralph Herdman, played by Aaron Neighbors) by telling him that he gets free snacks and goodies at Sunday school.

Dad Bob only wants to find a reason not to attend at all but is recruited to corral the angel choir. Ruby Lane, as daughter Beth, serves as the audience’s guide as she shares the tale of how a local clan of uncouth, underprivileged children invades the proceedings. Lane is a solid young actor who holds the show together with her narration.

The Herdman kids are loud, obnoxious, brawling ruffians who arrive looking to make merry by making off with the grape juice stand-in for communion wine and most anything else that isn’t nailed down. But there is a slow transformation as the Herdmans learn about the story of Christmas — especially Imogene (well played by Aspen Ring), who bullies her way to playing Mary in the pageant and discovers something deeper as she takes on the tale of a refugee teen who is suddenly given epic responsibility. Ava Leigh Manderson‘s Gladys Herdman is a tiny delight as the smallest, yet fiercest, of the wild family.

As the Herdmans find themselves transformed, so do the churchgoers. The show’s title should be a giveaway of how it all works out. Shouting, fighting and a 7-year-old smoking cigars in the bathroom — which leads to a visit from the fire department — ensue before the chaos resolves into a happy and poignant ending.

WHAT: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
WHERE: Asheville Community Theatre, 35 E. Walnut St.,
WHEN: Through Sunday, Dec. 17. Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 p.m., with an additional 7:30 p.m. show on Saturday, Dec. 16. $26

About Jeff Messer
playwright, actor, director and producer, Jeff Messer has been most recently known as a popular radio talk show host. He has been a part of the WNC theatre scene for over 25 years, and actively works with and supports most of the theatres throughout the region. Follow me @jeffdouglasmess

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