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Precocious children make for a refreshing, if flawed, "Christmas Pageant."

Kid Power

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After the dozens of TV shows and movies that have tried to pass off 27-year-old actors as high schoolers, the prospect of an 11-year-old character being played by an 11-year-old is down-right revolutionary. Which is why Theatre IV's "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever," with a cast featuring more than a dozen precocious children, is so refreshing. The extra effort it must have taken director Robin Arthur to school these little actors pays off in levels of cuteness and authenticity that older, more polished performers couldn't have provided.

Because of the age-appropriate casting, much of your reaction to this production may be along the lines of "Wow, that little boy can really sing!" or "Gosh, that girl didn't forget a single line!" If those reactions aren't the same as "What a knockout play!," well, a certain indulgence is appropriate during the holidays. Despite its drawbacks, this is a play that has a lot more laughs than "A Christmas Carol," and yet still pulls all the right heartstrings and leaves you with a warm cheerful feeling.

The show follows the tribulations of Grace Bradley (Debra Wagoner), a stereotypical '50s-era housewife, enlisted to direct the church Christmas pageant. Not only is Grace new at the job, but, this year, the notorious Herdman family has infested the pageant. These six cigar-smoking, flea-bitten bullies seem destined to wreak havoc on the production but instead, infuse it with new vitality and relevance.

As the play's narrator, Beth Bradley, Emily Hicks has a charming insistence and does a fine job moving the show along. She'd be the shining star if it weren't for a truly touching performance by Chelsea Franges as Imogene Herdman. Imogene is the Herdman most focused on figuring this whole Christmas thing out, and it's through her transformation that we are touched by the holiday spirit. A beautiful rendition of "Silent Night" by Bud Weber also lends a bit of magic to the proceedings.

Even with its magical moments, this is a show badly in need of an update. The 1950s setting is a bit confusing and forces the principal adult actors (Wagoner and Steve Perigard as the father) to turn in performances so milquetoast that they barely make an impression. This flattening effect is reflected in Greg Leach's bland sets and Thomas Hammond's ordinary costumes.

The era serves little other purpose except to allow for jarring anachronisms, like a father who, in a microwave-less society, can't prepare dinner for his family or a mother who blanches at the word "pregnant." While the racial balance in the cast is laudable it also isn't era-appropriate.

But once the pageant part of the show begins, any shortcomings are lost in the sweet chorus of young voices singing "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." The show succeeds in popping the huge balloon of pomposity that has built up around the holidays while reinforcing honorable lessons about tolerance and the power of the Christmas story. And this holiday cheer comes with no commercial breaks, a gift any marketing-overwhelmed parent can be thankful for at this time of

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