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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Evergreen’s ‘Best Christmas Pageant’ thrives

This year’s production includes two all-youth casts.

DE PERE, Wis., (WFRV) – More than 20 years into the De Pere area production of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” things are more different than usual. But still the same.

First, the same:

A church’s Christmas pageant is headed for disaster. Its perennial director has broken her leg, and her replacement is frazzled when terror in the form of six Herdman kids descends on her. All seems lost, when suddenly, everything turns on a dime. Hearts melt. Eyes well. Lumps grow in throats. It happens all the time. That’s why the story of Barbara Robinson has lasted, and Evergreen Theatre has embraced it year after year.

Now, the different:

The production always changes as new people, new directors and new support personnel come in to put their personal stamp on. New this year: No adults. All the parts are played by performers ages 6 to 17 from throughout Northeastern Wisconsin. It’s interesting to see what young people can do as adults.

Also different this year is performances are spread over two weekends in Webb Theatre of St. Norbert College. Performances were sold out on the first weekend, and some people were turned away on Sunday afternoon. For availability for Friday through next Sunday, Nov. 22-24, check the website, tickets.snc.edu.

In revising the production to an all-youth concept and adding a few updates (cell phones rather than telephones), director Teresa Aportela Sergott had enough turnout for two casts (with some overlap) for the two weekends.

The casts

Red Cast (Nov. 15-17): Dad (Bob Bradley), Jacob Huntoon; Mom (Grace Bradley), Ellie Roth; Beth Bradley, Alissondra Quatsoe; Charlie Bradley, Jason Windingstad; Ralph Herdman, Sam Phillip; Imogene Herdman, Anna Roth; Leroy Herdman, Brady Wittig; Claude Herdman, Chase Manos; Ollie Herdman, Tegen Lowney; Gladys Herdman, Jasmin Campbell; Alice Wendleken, Alana Gokey; Mrs. Armstrong, Anna Huntoon; Mrs. Slocum, Lexi Kane; Mrs. Clark, Diana Smet; Mrs. McCarthy, Bridget Massey; Maxine, Maggie Sergott; Elmer Hopkins, Lucas Brunette; Hobie, Owen Wick; David, Caleb Aguirre; Beverly, Rian Schrader; Firefighter, Eli Sergott; Firefighter, Travis Revolinski; Firefighter, Cami Elsner; Shirley, Julia Gokey; Juanita, Reese Nystrom; Reverend Hopkins, Eli Newdiger.

Green Cast (Nov. 22-24): Dad (Bob Bradley), Henry Patefield; Mom (Grace Bradley), McKenna Freiss; Beth Bradley, Faye McDonough; Charlie Bradley, Zach Suda; Ralph Herdman, Sam Phillip; Imogene Herdman, Kaitlynn Treankler; Leroy Herdman, Brady Wittig; Claude Herdman, Chase Manos; Ollie Herdman, Tegen Lowney; Gladys Herdman, Natalie Brunner; Alice Wendleken, Grace Sergott; Mrs. Armstrong, Kailee Kryger; Mrs. Slocum, Lexi Kane; Mrs. Clark, Diana Smet; Mrs. McCarthy, Bridget Massey; Maxine, Katie Romes; Elmer Hopkins, Lucas Brunette; Hobie, Ezekiel LeBreck; David, Caleb Aguirre; Beverly, Maya Newdiger; Firefighter, Eli Sergott; Firefighter, Travis Revolinski; Firefighter, Cami Elsner; Doris, Yokalasha Danforth; Juanita, Muneca Danforth; Reverend Hopkins, Eli Newdiger.

Having young actors in all the parts seems to make participation involving for all. There are auras of responsibility and sharing in the production (4 stars out of 5, very good, though that would seem miserly for Sunday afternoon’s all-ages crowd, which had a hoot). The young actors count on each other, and Teresa Sergott notes in her director’s comments in the program that she counted on an experienced cast member to get her “back on track” at times in preparations.

The first weekend’s cast did a good job. Expect the same next weekend.

NOTABLE: Anti-bullying is big in school these days. “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” is the ultimate anti-bullying play. The Herdmans come in as pushy, threatening toughs but change when acceptance emerges. What Barbara Robinson’s story does is not immediately apparent in the thick of its repetition of the biblical Christmas Story. It’s a layer tucked in there.

MEMORABLE PERFORMANCE: One of the previous productions was held at Green Bay Community Theater. One performance was a matinee that I attended. The actress playing Mrs. Armstrong forgot there was a matinee. Desperate, managing director Robert Lee Brault, put on a dress and a bed cap for the scene with a phone call from a hospital bed. It may have been the only time in the play’s history that Mrs. Armstrong had a goatee.

THE VENUE: The 184-seat Neil and Mary Webb Theatre is the smaller of two theaters in St. Norbert College’s Abbot Pennings Hall of Fine Arts. The Webb stage is one-of-a-kind thrust stage, meaning it “thrusts” into the audience space. A traditional proscenium stage has a flat front and usually has curtains. A trust stage rarely uses curtains. People in front rows can practically reach out and touch performers when the performers are on the stage lip. Any seat in the theater is close to the action.

THE PEOPLE: Neil and Mary Webb were husband and wife. Neil Webb was president of St. Norbert College from 1973 to 1983. He earlier headed the St. Norbert psychology department. He left academics for a while before becoming president of Dominican College in California. In December 1987, Neil and Mary Webb died in an airplane crash in California in an act of sabotage by a disgruntled employee. That was shortly before the Hall of Fine Arts was to be remodeled with a small theater in the plans. Neil Webb had a lot of friends in the community and had the reputation, so his name was used to raise funds for the theater.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV at 6:45 p.m. Thursdays and every other Sunday between 6 and 8 a.m. (usually around 7:45 a.m.)

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