In many ways, “The Best Christmas Pageant” is the perfect Christmas story for the Evergreen Playhouse this year, said Dave Marsh, who is co-directing the show with his wife, Heather.
“It’s about looking at traditions from somebody else’s perspective,” he said. “I think we all need to be able to look at things from other people’s perspectives and not cling to tradition so much that it taints the message.”
“The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” opens Friday, Dec. 3, at Centralia’s Evergreen Playhouse. Based on the book by Barbara Robinson, it is perhaps best known for a 1983 movie adaptation. Told by young Beth Bradley (portrayed by Emily Cole), it follows the story of a Christmas Pageant at a small-town church where things don’t go quite as planned, but perhaps they go even better. When the bossy church lady Mrs. Armstrong (portrayed by Riva Rice) is forced to drop out of her usual duty of directing the church’s annual Christmas pageant, Beth’s mother Grace Bradley (portrayed by Andrea Weston-Smart) reluctantly takes on the task. That means Beth, her dad Bob (portrayed by Dave Marsh) and brother Charlie (portrayed by Cael Best) get roped in for the ride.
Little does Grace know that in addition to directing a bunch of squirmy kids, she will have to wrangle the juvenile delinquent family of the Herdmans: Ralph (portrayed by Sydney Keith), Imogen (portrayed by Anna Gunter), Leroy (portrayed by Nathaniel McKenzieSullivan), Claude (portrayed by Justin Hazlett), Ollie (portrayed by Leah Clark) and Gladys (portrayed by Hayden Bookter). When the Herdmans muscle their way into Sunday school and the starring roles in the pageant, Grace is determined to still have the best Christmas Pageant Ever, no matter what the nosey church ladies think.
“Every time I see the movie, it always brings me to tears,” Weston-Smart said. “I just hope that Christmas spirit shines through that everyone is important and no one is bad.”
“The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” is a show where the adults play fairly minor roles and most scenes feature many young actors and actresses. The show will feature the talents of several local youth who have either acted at the Evergreen Playhouse previously or have been involved with local children’s theaters such as Theatre Of Arts Discipline (TOAD). Marsh said working with so many young actors in “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” feels like returning home. He previously worked 19 years at South Sound YMCA, which included managing a youth theater program. He is also a paraeducator for the Olympia School District and said he has seen first-hand the benefit of not automatically discounting kids who seem like “Herdmans.”
“Especially as we get close to the actual pageant itself, (the Herdmans) are the ones who actually get the message, hear the message, are learning something from the message,” Marsh said. “The kids who have done it year after year are the ones who kind of end up being the ‘bad’ ones.”
Marsh directed “Don’t Dress for Dinner” at the Evergreen Playhouse in January of 2020, which ended up being the final playhouse show to complete its entire planned run for audiences before the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered theaters worldwide. The very next show “Next to Normal” was only able to have a few shows before it had to be canceled. “Next to Normal” will return to the Playhouse in February 2022.
Directing during COVID-19 is not a new experience for Marsh. During the pandemic, he said he continued to be part of several stage productions, including directing the “One From The Shelf” streaming shows the Evergreen Playhouse produced last year. Marsh commended the playhouse’s ingenuity in offering events such as virtual shows and outdoor theater during the pandemic. But he admitted it is exciting to have audience members again be able to join them in the building.
“Having the live audience has been huge and the fact that it’s been almost two years makes it more incredible,” Marsh said.
Following guidelines similar to many other performing arts centers nationwide, the Evergreen Playhouse instituted a policy requiring vaccinations for all audience members ages 12 and older and masking for all patrons while inside the building other than when actively eating and drinking. Marsh noted that ticketholders need to bring either their physical vaccination card or use an approved verification app such as WAVerify for their proof of vaccination. No vaccination card photos on phones will be allowed.
All adult actors and actresses at the Evergreen Playhouse were required to be vaccinated this year and will perform without masks.
The young actors, some of whom did not have access to the COVID-19 vaccine until recently, will be wearing industry standard clear, plastic face-shield style masks to perform.
If You Go …
What: Evergreen Playhouse and HUBBUB presents “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever”
When: Dec. 3-19, 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays with the exception of the Saturday, Dec. 1, show, which is at 2 p.m. (to avoid conflict with the Lighted Tractor Parade), and 2 p.m. Sundays
Where: Evergreen Playhouse, 226 W. Center St., Centralia
Tickets: $15 adults and $12 students/seniors. Special Pay-What-You-Can artist benefit at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 9. Tickets can be purchased at evergreenplayhouse.com. Proof of vaccination either by presentation of your physical vaccination card or verification on an approved app such as WAVerify is required for all patrons ages 12 and older and masking is required for all audience members.