REVIEW: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (Provision)

     
     

The art of making miracles where you least expect them

    
     

Christmas Pageant somewhere-sometime

  
Provision Theater presents
   
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
  
Bassed on novel by Barbara Robinson
Directed by
Tim Gregory
at
Provision Theater, 1001 W. Roosevelt Road (map)
through Dec 22  |  tickets: $10-$15  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Mrs. Bradley (Cheryl Golemo) has bitten off more than she can chew. Mrs. Armstrong (Barbara Figgins), who usually directs the church’s yearly Christmas pageant, cannot move from her hospital bed, her leg awkwardly suspended in traction. So, Mrs. Bradley has agreed to take over her directorial duties. So far, in Provision Theater’s The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, everything seems quite doable until Mrs. Bradley’s son, Charlie (Ryan Cowhey), lets it slip to one of the Herdman children, toy - christmas pageant figurinesbullies and roughnecks all, that rehearsals for the pageant are followed by cookies, donuts and other refreshments. That brings the herd of Herdmans to rehearsals at the church and they proceed to hijack the production by taking over its leading roles.

Local, homespun Christmas pageants are familiar rituals that bring communities together to view comforting tableaus of the Christian narrative of the birth of Jesus. Attend and you are sure to hear the same passages of familiar Scripture, see a familiar nativity scene, and go through the familiar arrivals of the shepherds and the Three Wise Men. Generally, it’s an evening without surprises but with kids there are no guarantees. Provision’s pageant drama is different from the usual, in that it relies on the unpredictable nature of kids for its humor and suspense.

Directed by Tim Gregory, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever also takes some healthy swipes at pettiness in churchgoing culture: the Herdman’s being the poorest family in the community and their children knowing little to nothing about Jesus’ birth, while the community’s church ladies are in a snit to they discover that they have taken the leading roles in the pageant instead of their own children. Mrs. Bradley can feel community support slipping away from her production, as well as her control of her young actors slipping away during the rehearsal process.

1011-homepage-bcpeMuch about Provision’s production still has rough edges. Since most of the roles are filled with untrained child actors, the production definitely has ‘community theater’ written all over it. But it’s surprising how much Gregory can evoke small miracles with his young and inexperienced cast. Imogene Herdman (Page Weaver) ultimately does make a sympathetic and convincingly loving Mary. The sacrifice that the Herdman children make to welcome the baby Jesus is honestly touching. Along the way, little touches that evoke the individual personality traits of the cast make each child special to the audience. In fact, its the small touches that entertain more than the manic comedy scenes. Mr. Bradley (Andy Luther) brings a solid strain of authenticity when centering Mrs. Bradley’s creative efforts on the real meaning of Christmas. While not a totally professional effort, families will no doubt enjoy The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.

     
     
Rating: ★★
  
  

Christmas Pageant anon

     
      

REVIEW: A Christmas Carol (Goodman Theatre)

  
  

Sympathy for the Curmudgeon

  
  

Ebenezer Scrooge (John Judd) and Jacob Marley (Anish Jethmalani)

  
Goodman Theatre presents
  
A Christmas Carol
   
By Charles Dickens
Adapted by
Tom Creamer
Directed by
William Brown
at
Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through Dec 31  |  tickets: $   |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

Christmas stories always frightened me as a child. I was the kid peering from beneath the blankets, too terrified to sleep on Christmas Eve. A fat jolly man was slipping into our apartment to leave me stuff based on my behavior. I was supposed to be happy and grateful – so much so as to leave cookies for the guy. All of this was exacerbated by special showings of “A Christmas Carol” on Family Classics. You mean there are ghosts too? Every rendition of the Dickens classic has always made my heart beat faster and sigh in relief when old Ebenezer made his turnaround.
The Goodman Theatre production of A Christmas Carol thankfully gave me, instead of anxiousness, a sense of relief and a warm fuzzy. This beautifully staged play adds an element of humor that I had not previously seen in the story.

The ghost from Christmas Present (Susan Shunk)Dickens’ tale has become an allegory for redemption and forgiveness through the spirit of Christmas. The hardscrabble lives of 19th-century England have not gone away. It is more in our faces than ever with high definition. Goodman’s production suspends belief for a couple of well spent hours and in turn makes the story more relevant. This is brought to light by a really great cast, musicians, gorgeous sets and meticulous costume reproductions.

This is veteran actor John Judd’s first appearance as the iconic Ebenezer Scrooge. Mr. Judd has the scowling and gravelly visage of a first-class crank. His Scrooge is tightly wound and a first class crank. Judd imbues the character with an undertone of sarcasm and sardonic humor as he suggests the workhouses and prisons as an alternative for homelessness. I most enjoyed Mr. Judd once the character was taken down a few pegs by the ghostly visits. He has wonderful comic timing and the karmic retribution that befalls Scrooge is also done quite well in spite of some visual histrionics. The hellfire tombstone is over the top; I would have preferred the neglected gravestone etched with Scrooge’s name. It’s nice to have money for opulent sets this seems to pander to spectacle-seekers, and was not worthy of such an otherwise beautifully dressed set.

There is plenty of to enjoy in this show thanks to some cast standouts. The ghostly visitors were wonderful and backed by glowing special effects. Anish Jethmalani plays Jacob Marley with fiendish anger. The visual effects contain strobes and projections blasting out of the painting over Scrooge’s bed. The painting looks like Andrew Jackson on the $20, which I found sardonically funny (though I don’t know if it was intentional or not). Jethelmani’s appearance is brief but powerful, especially his descent into the fireplace standing in for hell.

Susan Shunk as Christmas Past gives a delightful performance as she takes Scrooge flying. I was impressed that it was the only use of aerial effects. Ms. Shunk is dressed in Dickensian boy attire and has the glee of a sprite as she reveals the history of Ebenezer’s angst and closed heart. Judd is hilarious as he flounders in the air, terrified and then in awe.

   
Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol - Goodman Theatre Christmas Past shows Scrooge an earlier Christmas
Ebenezer Scrooge (John Judd) John Judd as Ebenezer Scrooge

The next spirit is my favorite – Penelope Walker as Christmas Present was a joyful and ebullient delight. This is spectacle done beautifully. Scrooge wakes up in a bed laden with shiny wrapped presents and Ms. Walker sprinkling glitter and musical laughter. Christmas Present is seen against a cyc wall exploding with stars and then a street filled with the townspeople. Ms. Walker does a wonderful turn as she portrays Dickens’ indictment of poverty. It’s astounding to see the switch from glee to desperate darkness. Two impoverished waifs seem to crawl up from the earth from under her cloak. It reminds one of the old lithographic styles of newspaper editorial cartoons from Dickens’ time.

Christmas Future is properly ominous – dark, hooded, and at least 15 feet tall. With no face seen or dialogue uttered, I was taken back to my childhood terrors. Christmas Past also leads to the best visual effects of a giant tombstone with blazing letters, perpetuating the terror of being bad around Christmas.

Ebenezer Scrooge (John Judd) and Tiny TimRon Rains as Bob Cratchit is a standout of comic gifts and subtle pathos. He seems to channel Rowan Atkinson’s ‘Mr. Bean’ when he tries to retrieve his hat without disturbing Scrooge. It’s a comic gem that gets a well-deserved hearty applause. Rains avoids the downtrodden treacle of Cratchit portrayals past. He portrays a family man using the power of gratitude to keep the family spirits aloft in spite of poverty. There isn’t one maudlin misstep in his performance and he plays a pretty mean guitar as well.

I give the same applause to the children in this play. It’s hard to be a child and play a child without being too cute. I call it the ‘awww effect’. I give credit to Director William Brown for keeping this in check and for directing a smoothly executed classic production. It stands on its own merit and is worthy of being an annual family excursion. Speaking of families – you can take yours to this, but please teach the kids that it is not okay to chatter throughout the performance. Childlike awe is expected of children and adults but ask questions over ice cream after the show, not during. The same goes to the grown man with the rumbling bass voice behind me. I send you a whack of the wet soba noodle-hush.

 
    
Rating: ★★★½     
      
  

Scene from A Christmas Carol - Goodman Theatre Chicago

A Christmas Carol plays through December 31st at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn in beautiful downtown Chicago. Call 312-443-3811 or log on www.goodmantheatre.org for more details on tickets and performance times. Go early for dinner before the show because most Loop eateries shut down by 9:00pm. There is a nice theatre gift shop as well. Perhaps you can find something for the jolly guy on Christmas Eve…sleep well and Happy Holidays!

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