Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

December 12, 2013

REVIEW: 'The Best Christmas Pageant Ever' comes to life at Playhouse

By Pat Robbennolt
Chronicle contributor

CROSSVILLE — The cast of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is made up of 70 youngsters and adults. The Mainstage of the Cumberland County Playhouse springs to life as director Weslie Webster and choreographers Leila Nelson and Chaz Sanders present the full ensemble in “Deck the Halls” and “A Christmas Medley.”  Three groups of young people will alternate in bringing the performances to life between now and Dec. 21. We were privileged to see the Red cast on opening night. I have been told the Green and Blue casts are equally talented.

The lovely solo voice of Caroline Daughtry, a tenth-grader at Stone Memorial High School, singing “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” as part of the opening medley, gave us a taste of the talents we were to witness. Daughtry plays Imogene, a part of the dreaded Herdman family, known and feared by “the good kids” of the town. She later appears as Mary, skillfully allowing her character to develop from a wild teen into a tender young mother whose deep feelings for her child make us forget it is only a doll.

Other members of the Herdman family in the Red cast are Barret Velker as Ralph, Hunter Kief or Christian Velker as Leroy, Zeke Tinch as Claude, Marley Minneci as Molly and the irrepressible Sasha Villaruz as Gladys. Sasha may be only seven years old but she knows how to steal the show. We meet the Herdmans as they offer “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells.”

The Bradley family represents a level of family stability: Greg and Lindy Pendzick obviously enjoy playing the parents bringing some astounding athleticism to otherwise staid parental roles. Caitlin McMahon plays daughter Beth, a demanding role, since she becomes the narrator from time to time. Zachary Villaruz plays impish brother Charlie. He displays a fine voice on his solo of “Sweet Hour of Prayer."

There is to be a Sunday school pageant at church with traditions to be observed, many of them established and firmly adhered to by Mrs. Armstrong. Carol Irvin is clearly enjoying herself playing the role of this know-it-all dowager laid up at the time she is most needed. Aware that she is irreplaceable as the director of the pageant, her constant advice, via cell phone, is hilarious. Irvin, along with her friends, neighbors and fellow church ladies are a part of all three of the rotating casts. These devoted followers of Mrs. Armstrong’s church leadership are Mrs. Slocum (Caitlin Schaub), Mrs. Clark (Leila Nelson), Mrs. Clausing (Lorelle Norris or Rachel Marie Hartchett) and Mrs. McCarthy (Terri Ritter). Their understanding of the role of the church does not include tolerating the presence of the Herdman children. Outreach to those in need is not a part of faith in action for them.

Lindy Pendzick as Grace Bradley does a delightful job of attempting to organize the children in the Christmas pageant. Most have been part of it for years and are quite able to quote Mrs. Armstrong’s usual phrases. It is, of course, assumed that Alice, played by Anais Villaruz will play Mary. Other youngsters seen as members of the pageant cast are: Chavin Medina, Ellie Minneci. Kaleigh Doris, Rain Smith, Summer Medina, Taylor Dearman and Emma Olivo. Church was the one place they had felt safe. These youngsters do a remarkable job of displaying absolute terror when the Herdmans appear. Not only do the Herdman children want to be part of the pageant, the also volunteer to play the major roles.

Costume designer Rene Luttrell shows the difference in socio-economic level in the costuming of the kids. Real fire helmets from the Cumberland County Fire Department are an important part of the action. Firemen Michael Ruff, Bob Johnson, Malachi Banegas and Chaz Sanders race to save the church from the fire of uncertain origin. Larry Lively, Barrett and Ransom Velker join the fire brigade with other casts.

Wandering through the mayhem, puzzled by activity in the church he serves, is Skip Ritter as Rev. Hopkins.

Other members of the ensemble must be listed because Mrs. Armstrong says, “There are no little parts, just little children”: Rachel Marie Hatchett, Abby Thompson, McKenzie Davis, Marilyn Roysden, Samantha Whitlock, Haven McCoy, Baylee Stone, Italiana Davis, Karli Moses-Edwards, Katie Murphy, Rylyn LeBaron, Tais LeBaron, Abby Spigner, Brooklyn Smith, Viki Avalos, Bryanne Thacker, Regan Riechers, Ava Whitacker, Elizabeth Kirkland and Trey Norrod. 

Herdmans in the Blue cast are: Malachi Banegas, Darbi Banegas, Hunter Kief,

Simon Berman, McKenna Shada and Sophie Burnett. Green cast members playing the Herdmans are Ransom Velker, Katey Dailey, Christian Velker, Caleb Velker, Ava Graham and Ellie Velker.

Ellie Burnett is Beth Bradley in the Blue cast while Emery Smith plays the role in the Green cast. Levi Bailey plays Charlie in the Blue cast while Joe Norris is Charlie in the Green cast.

Blue cast members of the pageant are: Lindsey Lively, Jesse Allen, Kaydi McClausland, Lily Barnes, Natalie Underwood, Grace Miller and Chloe Miller.

Green cast members not in the other casts are Victoria Housley, Josh Norris, Eva Velker, Shailyn Morgan, Sara Swafford, Tavannah Roysden, Bailey Smith and Anya Reichers.

We have seen many of these youngsters in other productions. Their bios in the program note that some have been in as many as 15 productions. The Playhouse stage and their classes at the Playhouse have been a major part of their growing up. Particularly in this show, many of the young cast members are making their first appearance. Thanks to Jim Crabtree, to Weslie Webster, to the two-person keyboard orchestra of Ron Murphy and David Garrison and to sponsor M. Stewart Galloway, M.D. for adding this amazing extravaganza to our holiday celebration. 

Even if you have previously seen The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, you will want to call and order tickets. They are going fast and as Carol Irvin tells us, in her role as Mrs. Armstrong, “It is the best Christmas Pageant Ever."