SAVING THE BEST FOR LAST: Santa Barbara Children’s Theatre starts with a satire

 Lara Halloway, left, plays Grace Bradley and Maaggie Langhorne plays Imogene Herdman in "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever."

Lara Halloway, left, plays Grace Bradley and Maaggie Langhorne plays Imogene Herdman in “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.”

Miller James had been holding his dream of running a children’s theater for years at bay, waiting for that chance to start. He had been married to the idea of waiting for the perfect space, but realized that might never come. It would be better, he realized, just to put on a show first. This former costume designer for Opera Santa Barbara and head of Ensemble’s Storybook Theater program decided the time was right, and the personal support was there. And now at the Santa Barbara Community Church, he and his large community company are about to mount “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.”

“The Best” started life as a children’s book by Barbara Robinson, which along the way became a little-seen (and not well loved) TV movie starring Loretta Switt. But it’s done best as a piece of regional theater, for several reasons: it’s a satire on pageants while doing double duty as one; its large cast means choice roles for young actors; its setting (a church) means one can perform it … in a church.

“If I’d rented a theater I would have had to turn it into a church,” Miller says. “So I rented a church.”

Mr. James’ production features 38 kids from all over Santa Barbara (out of 128 at the audition), from various high and junior high schools, home schools, and with some actors as young as 5, no school yet for some. Eight adult actors join the cast.

Lara Holloway was a child actress — she toured in the title role as Annie — but now plays the lead mother, Grace Bradley. Greg Sorenson plays the father, Bob, and was recently seen as a pirate in the Lobero’s “Peter Pan.” Other adult actors play the pious church ladies who make Grace’s life a misery. Katie Thatcher, who appears often in City College and Center Stage productions, has also stepped in at the last minute to fill a small role.

The plot involves an out-of-her-league mother who must fill in for a pageant director and the Herdman family — one of largest, meanest, unruliest families in town — who arrive to take all the plum roles (and fill up on free snacks and drink). Chaos and comedy ensue, but as one might suspect, even the roughest elements wind up imbued with the holiday spirit by play’s end.

The Herdman children really don’t know the Nativity, or who or what shepherds, Wise Men or even Joseph and Mary are or what they do, and Robinson’s story gets much comic mileage from these miscommunications.

“It’s sentimental in the good sense of the word,” says director James. “I’m doing my best to make sure it doesn’t fall into that sappy stuff. But you do get these cute boys in their father’s bathrobes playing shepherds, and a tomboy running in as the angel of the Lord yelling ‘SHAZAM!’ ”

Westmont theater camp’s Maggie Langhorne plays one of the oldest Herdmans, who plays Mary, mother of God. She has the greatest challenge, says James, going from rough to sweet. But James has worked with her for four years and has cast her in many Opera Santa Barbara shows. He knows she’s up for it.

And look out for 5-year-old Anna Chase, who plays Gladys — “she’s definitely the star of the show,” he smiles.

For the future of Santa Barbara Children’s Theatre, Miller plans to produce several productions a year, some with kids, some for kids. “Right now this is for bringing families in to see quality entertainment that features local talent.”

‘THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER’
When: 2 and 7 p.m. today, 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Santa Barbara Community Church, 1002 Cieneguitas Road
Cost: $12 adults $10 children
Information: (805) 967-0340 or www.santabarbarachildrenstheatre.com

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