Even though I have seen two previous Lexington Children's Theatre productions of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, I found the third time as charming as its predecessors, underscoring why LCT returns to the show every few years: It's a delightful, guaranteed blend of comedy and surprising tenderness.
Barbara Robinson's book about "the worst kids in the world" was published in 1971 and the staged adaptation, developed by the Seattle Children's Theatre, has been a hit with audiences since 1982. At LCT alone, more than 50 children have portrayed the Herdman kids, a rambunctious, unruly pack of three boys and three girls whose rough-and-tumble lives disturb the whole community.
When the Herdman kids show up in Sunday school, the last Herdman-free sanctuary, lured by the promise of free cookies and refreshments, it looks like the annual Christmas pageant is going to be a disaster. But through hilariously entertaining and poignant plot twists, the Herdmans leave a mark on pageant participants that touches the entire community.
As a so-called "Discovery production," LCT's latest Best Christmas Pageant Ever leans heavily on a spate of young actors and only a handful of adults. That's part of the fun.
Vicariously enjoying the young cast's sense of accomplishment and pure fun-having was a big part of the opening-day audience's experience on Saturday.
When sixth-grader Paige Hensley leaps and shouts, "Shazam!" as part of Gladys Herdman's improvised portrayal of the Angel of the Lord, it kicks off a spate of hysterical scenes that has the audience laughing in part at Robinson's situational comedy, in part at Hensley's comedic timing, and also just because the kids on stage seem to be having so much fun.
There is something so deeply restorative about watching children play and in this case, watching them play on the Lexington Opera House stage to an audience of attentive grown-ups.
Jonah Brooks, Katie Cross, Brandon Cross, Melissa Evans and George Griffiths also deliver spirited performances as the remaining Herdman siblings — who, let's be clear, are bullies. Their crude antics are a part of the show's comedy, but they are also clearly symptoms of an environment where food and resources are scarce. When they immerse themselves in an environment of creative storytelling (by gatecrashing the annual Christmas pageant and stealing all the plum roles), their behavior changes dramatically.
Katie Cross's transformation of Imogene Herdman from cigar-smoking ruffian to playing Mary tenderly cradling, and even burping, the baby Jesus is poignantly touching. Likewise the inclusion of a tin of ham with the wise men's offerings is a practical, if unorthodox, gift that shows their sincerity.
The entire cast of children (the play is double cast) delivered solid, entertaining performances and the few adult roles, such as Jesse Laine Harris and Karyn Czar as the pageant's current and former directors, are brightly amusing as well, often anchoring the pace of the show.
LCT's design team deserves praise for creative cohesion. Eric Abele's costumes, Tony Hardin's set and Justine Burke's lighting elegantly complement one another.
'The Best Christmas Pageant Ever'
What: Lexington Children's Theatre's production of the play based on Barbara Robinson's book.
When: 2 and 7 p.m. Dec. 7; 2 p.m. Dec. 8
Where: Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short St.
Tickets: $18 adults, $15 children. Available at (859) 254-4546, Ext. 245, or Lctonstage.org.