Play breathes new life into holiday message
The University of Alberta-Augustana Fine Arts Theatre company rehearses for their upcoming production The Best Little Christmas Pageant Ever which opens on Nov. 23 at the Jeanne and Peter Lougheed Performing Arts Centre in Camrose. Josh Aldrich/ Camrose Canadian
The University of Alberta-Augustana fine arts department is hoping people take a more open view to their world with their latest theatrical effort The Best Little Christmas Pageant Ever.
The play is holiday classic based on a small-town Sunday school Christmas pageant interrupted by the Herdmans who unintentionally take over the cast. The Herdmans are far from the church-going crowd and live in abject poverty, but with Imogene (played by Natalia McGill) suddenly playing the role of Mary the leads are suddenly not as shiny or heaven-sent as they stereotypically are portrayed.
Director Paul Johnson refers to an exchange between the father and his daughter Beth (Racquel Deveau), also the narrator of the story, towards the end of the story. She remarks they “look awful, all safety pinned together. They look like refugees.” The father replies “Well that’s what they were in a way, Mary and Joseph, they were refugees, away from home, no place to go.”
“We’ve tried to pick up on that,” said director Paul Johnson. “It’s appropriate today with what’ going on in Canada, people are upset that people are just crossing the border. But when you look at it from their perspective, they’re a long way from home and they’re just looking for a place to call home …
“When they pack the church, and everyone comes out to see the play, it causes everybody to see the tired, old story that they’ve re-enacted year after year as tradition, they start to see it through a new lens, the lens of someone who didn’t know this story before and picked it up and breathed new life into it.”
He says the message of who your neighbour is and helping those in need is always relevant.
The play is a relatively brisk 60 minutes and plays at the Jeanne and Peter Lougheed Performing Arts Centre from Nov. 23-26.
The department usually puts on a major production in March, but with Johnson set to go on sabbatical in the new year he wanted to get something in that was well-suited for the season.
The play is based on the 1971 novel by Barbara Robinson that was later turned into a play in 1982 and adapted for a TV movie by the same name in 1983.
When the Herdmans wind up cast in the major roles without even knowing the Christmas story, it is believed by everyone involved that this year’s pageant will be ruined. But by rubbing a little dirt on the final product, as opposed to the shoe polish normally associated with such a production, important lessons are learned by everyone.
“The family was very misunderstood and it’s interesting to then watch the different people start to be won over by the Herdmans,” said Johnson. “The mother (Sharnelle Umphrey) becomes the first one to stick up for them and she’s determined this is going to be the best Christmas pageant ever, even though everyone else says this is going to be a disaster.”
The play is not meant as a heavy, sobering production to slog through. Instead it is packed with laughs that keeps everything moving. Robert Renman will also be providing musical accompaniment and underscoring while the Camrose Children’s choir, under the direction of Joy-Anne Murphy, will also perform.
The Best Little Christmas Pageant Ever is a production the cast of 19 has been able to have a lot of fun with.
“Especially the kid roles, they’re having a lot of fun with (them),” said Johnson. “They’re not trying to play caricatures, they’re just playing the kid within themselves and bringing that back to life.”
The play opens with evening showings from Nov. 23-25 at 7 p.m. and matinees on Nov. 25 and 26 at 2 p.m.
“I hope people will be entertained, because we’re having a lot of fun doing it,” said Johnson. “They’re funny characters and it’s highly physical. Anyone who can sit still for an hour will certainly be able to enjoy this show. It’s a simple story with a good message.”