A modern Yuletide classic returns to Live Oak Theatre on the Acorn Youth Theatre stage this weekend, as “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” is performed for five shows on December 8, 9 and 10. All performances will occur at the Carol and Frank Morsani Center for the Arts, 21030 Cortez Boulevard, Brooksville, Florida 34601. The Friday and Saturday evening shows are at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday matinees are at 2:30 p.m.—and on Saturday, December 9, a 5 p.m. performance has been added. The doors will open approximately 30 minutes before showtime.
“At this time, all shows have been sold out,” said Live Oak spokesman and drama coach Vince Vanni. “However, we are creating waiting lists now, and some people are canceling because of the weather. We work to accommodate those who want to see the show. We encourage those interested to write Marie at [email protected] to check ticket availability.”
Vanni says that this production has a rich history at the theatre. “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” was performed once before at Live Oak. Katie Marra and Lindsay McTague directed it. This year, Katie returns as director, with a student director assisting her—Caleb Gunn. We develop our own directors so that we have consistency in our products. I serve as the drama coach,” he explained. “As you review the cast list, you may notice some familiar names like Caleb, Zoey Lallis, Addie Ladouceur, and Nick Ritenis, who have had featured roles in many Live Oak productions. Caleb became well-recognized for his evil ‘Man in Yellow’ role in ‘Tuck Everlasting.’ These individuals work alongside other seasoned performers as well as many newcomers to the Live Oak Conservatory.”
A suburban mother named Grace Bradley is in charge of directing a church production of the Biblical Christmas story in this modern tale. When a family that her young daughter Grace refers to as “the worst kids in the history of the world” assumes the main roles in this timeless tale, Ms. Bradley has her work cut out for her. Yet, under Grace’s direction, the Herdmans tap their untold talents to present the best Christmas pageant ever.
“This show is all about the kids,” said director Katie Marra. “As a theater that doubles as a conservatory, Live Oak is heavily invested in the children who are growing up to be our next generation of performers. Every budding actor has that first show that made them love being on stage, and this play is a great one for many of these children to call their first.”
Live Oak Theatre’s “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” is a stage adaptation of Barbara Robinson’s classic family Christmas story, which Publishers Weekly called “one of the best Christmas books ever.” The book holds a five-star rating on Amazon.com and inspired a filmed version in 1983. This beloved TV movie featured Loretta Swit of MASH fame and a young Fairuza Balk and still shows up on cable stations this time of year. And now, “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” is being adapted as an upcoming major motion picture by Christian film director Dallas Jenkins.
“This show was done one other time before this season, back in 2019,” said Marra. “That time we had a mixed cast of children and adults alike, whereas this cast will be comprised of performers solely within the ages of 8–18 since it is a Youth Theatre production.”
Marra says that she feels “inspired” by her young cast members. “Every show has its speed bumps,” said Marra. “Some rehearsals are amazing while others are less than, but every rehearsal I have had with these kids has shown me how much they care about this story. They put everything into it and it inspired me to be a better director.”
Marra feels that “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” offers strong positive messages for its audience.”The first time I directed this show, I had never seen it or even heard of it,” she said. “The messages that stood out most to me were patience and tolerance. Sometimes, you need to be patient and willing to help others, including those unlike you.”
Caleb Gunn, a 16-year-old student co-director and the actor playing the role of Father (Bob) in “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” also feels that the play offers a highly affirmative theatrical experience for viewers. “Live Oak Theatre’s Acorn Theatre brings in kids from all sorts of backgrounds, from 8 to 18 years old, either quite experienced in theater or making this their first experience. This show is an hour straight of acting, contrary to the Acorn’s Theatre’s most recent show, ‘Mary Poppins Jr.’ which had a lot of its time filled with dance and musical numbers, this show is very different,” said Gunn. “I believe you’ll find the chemistry between the Herdmens like nothing you’ve seen before, the interactions between the family at the dinner table and throughout the show charming and hilarious, and the moving Christmas pageant scene at the end (which erupted in chaos at every practice), but almost miraculously, came to be perfect through its imperfect flaws, causing everybody at the church to believe this was the best pageant they have ever seen, and I believe you’ll think so right alongside them.”
And this production of “The Best Christmas Pageant,” Gunn revealed, comes complete with a refreshing twist. “The Christmas pageant has only been performed once at Live Oak Theatre (back in Christmas of 2019), making this the second time ‘The Best Christmas Pageant Ever’ will debut at Live Oak; however, there’s a twist this time around,” he said. “The first showing of 2019’s Christmas pageant was open to all ages, where anybody was allowed to audition, contrary to this year’s showing, which is specifically under the Acorn Theatre, where, as mentioned, kids from 8 to 18 are permitted to participate. However, I believe much of the magic in this year’s showing will lie in the fact a handful of teens, such as me as the Father, have the responsibility of playing adults, forcing some of the cast to really think and ponder on how their character would speak, move, and react to the show’s events as somebody much older than them, and contrary to their teenage age.”
Gunn welcomed the special challenges, not only of directing, but of performing in the same production.
“Keep your eyes peeled as I, in good fatherly nature, pop in and out around the theatre as I “push the children on for their cues”, watching in shock as they cause some unanticipated chaos, have to push a baby angel back on stage, or am frightened when one of the Herdmens comes running past me without warning!” he said. “However, one learning curve for every actor/actress is learning to use their “funny lines” to their best potential, and not saying them so fast that the audience doesn’t hear the joke or gag. Learning to become comfortable with taking pauses for comedic effect, or learning to use your body language to exaggerate your joke fully is a heavy learning curve, but certainly important if you want to satisfy the crowd with a good laugh.”
Gunn, like Marra, feels that “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” offers the best messages regarding love, acceptance and spirituality. “I hope all who come to view this show will appreciate its comedy, quirk, charm, chemistry between characters, joy we want to bring to your Christmas season, and love not only for this show, but for the true story of Jesus Christ’s birth and of his sacrificial love,” he said. “However, we must look at the other side of the coin too; how about those who don’t know what Christmas means? What about those who don’t celebrate or truly understand what this holiday means? Well, that’s exactly who the Herdmen represent in this show. Unaware of what they’re truly signing up for when they raid the Sunday School and take over the show, characters like Imogene Herdmen come to realize at the end of the show there is more to Christmas than just the pageant, candy canes, and the ham they’re gifted in the welfare basket. Nobody is born right with God, and you nor I are perfect, just like the Herdmens. Whereas all the church folk may have found the Herdmens obnoxious and rude, little did they realize the pageant would be their introduction to Christ and change them for the better, people who truly needed God’s word at the time.”
Gunn hopes that people come away from the show with an inspirational message. “I also hope you’ll walk out of this show just like the group of ladies at the end of the Christmas pageant scene, shocked by how well it came together and how it moved them,” he said. “I hope you’ll feel as if you were right there in the church audience, one of the townsfolk who took their seat at this highly anticipated Christmas pageant (who all thought would fail) but instead moved people so much through its unexpected shenanigans, and realizing characters like Mary and Joseph weren’t perfect, just like Imogene and Ralph who play them in the pageant, and walk out believing this was ‘The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.’”
For Katie Marra, “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” has been the very best production to guide and direct. “Directing these kids has been a one-of-a-kind experience for me and I am so proud of my cast,” she said.
Advanced adult seats are $20; children 13 and under are $10 (with the purchase of an adult reservation.) Advanced prices are available up to approximately 24 hours before each performance. Twenty-four hours before showtime, ticket prices increase by $5 for adults and children.
To check seating availability, visit https://liveoaktheatre.square.site/, email [email protected], or call 352-593-0027. Follow them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/LiveOakTheatre.