‘The Best Christmas Pageant Ever’

‘The Best Christmas Pageant Ever’

Holiday classic makes its debut at Arkansas Public Theatre


“Any time you direct an iconic show, especially one that has been loved in a neighboring theater, you have to tread lightly,” Brenda Mashburn Nemec muses. She’s talking about “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” a staple for more than two decades at the Arts Center of the Ozarks in Springdale. Arkansas Public Theatre in Rogers, seeing an opportunity, added the script to its season this year when ACO let it go.

“We are always looking for great shows for the holidays, and ‘The Best Christmas Pageant Ever’ fits that bill,” says Ed McClure, APT productions chairman and one of the founders of the theater. “It’s hilarious, poignant and perfect for the whole family for Christmas. Plus, it’s great to return this holiday tradition to Northwest Arkansas.”

That being said, as the first director of “BCPE” at its new home, Nemec started fresh.

“We wanted to make this show an APT production and not worry about what had been done at other theaters,” she says. “I didn’t watch videos from other places, just studied the script and directed it like it was brand new.”

She did have a challenge one might share with the director of a church Christmas pageant. She didn’t get to choose her cast of 39.

“I was actually out of town with my family … and Ed was gracious enough to audition and cast the show for me,” she explains. “I feel like it takes an army for me to direct any show,” this time including McClure’s set design, Chad Wigington designing sound, Matthew Etris designing lights and Joey Farmer “assisted with some theater games to develop characters,” she adds. “I forgot how much you need to explain when directing children!”

But Nemec is firmly grounded in the premise of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.”

“I grew up in the First Baptist Church in Hugo, Okla., and have been in numerous Christmas pageants,” she says. “I didn’t realize as a child that there were children that were different from me. I thought everyone went to church somewhere and knew the Christmas story.”

In the lighthearted 1971 book by Barbara Robinson, the Herdman children don’t know anything about the Christmas pageant except that it involves snacks. They show up en masse to try out and in doing so, turn the whole production on its ear.

The Herdman children are always described as “the worst kids in the history of the world.” Imogene, Claude, Ralph, Leroy, Ollie and Gladys lie, steal, smoke cigars, swear and pick on other children. When they surprise everyone at auditions, the other children refuse to express interest in the leading roles, and the Herdmans find themselves cast as Joseph, Mary and the Wise Men.

“Imogene is an ornery, bossy boots who thinks she knows it all at the beginning of the play,” says Julia Borkowski, an ACO veteran as an angel who has moved up to a speaking role at APT. “She will soon learn the meaning of Jesus which, in turn, opens her mind and heart to a different outlook on life.

“I, being a teenager, have that little bit of ornery and know-it-all attitude,” she admits. But, unlike Imogene, “I’m not so aggressive, and I like to keep proper hygiene.”

It’s up to Beth Bradley, one of the “good kids” and narrator of the play, to help change the Herdmans — and the minds of everyone else in the pageant.

“Beth is a little more accepting of the Herdmans, even though she still thinks they’re the worst kids in the world,” says Stevie Grace St. John, who is playing the role at APT. “She also stands up for her family on countless occasions. … It all comes together in the end [and] reveals what Christmas is all about through the Herdmans.”

“I want everyone to leave the theater wanting to spread peace and love to all they meet,” concludes Nemec. “That is what this pageant is all about.”



‘The Best Christmas Pageant Ever’

WHEN — 8 p.m. Dec. 14-15; 2 p.m. Dec. 16; again Dec. 20-23

WHERE — Arkansas Public Theatre in Rogers

COST — $22-$29

INFO — 631-8988

Categories: Cover Story