By Gwen Rice, Special to OnMilwaukee   Published Nov 26, 2018 at 7:01 PM

First Stage has produced the festive classic "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever" nine times over their 31-year history, beginning back in 1990. But this season the tale of the horrible Herdman children invading the annual nativity pageant and wreaking holiday havoc has a couple of twists. First, this is a musical version set in the early 1960s, and second, it’s led by "Christmas Pageant" veterans director Molly Rhode and lead actress Karen Estrada, who both worked on the show as kids.

That balance of carrying on treasured traditions and dressing up the tree with shiny new decorations is what makes Christmas magic. The fact that this production has familiar laughs, a score full of fresh, fun music, and lessons of patience, acceptance and grace – for both kids and their parents – makes it the best 90 minutes you can spend in the theater this holiday season.

The majority of the show takes place in a small town church that may feel familiar to playgoers. The entire back wall is made of vibrant stained glass in a rainbow of colors, changing with the color of the light that shines through them (stunning lighting design by Marisa Abbott and scenic design by Kristin Ellert). The floor-to-ceiling abstract windows separate into panels that slide back and forth for some interesting stage pictures.

They also make room for the very ’60s dining set and stereo cabinet of the Bradley family home, where the slightly frazzled Grace Bradley (a pitch perfect Karen Estrada) serves TV dinners to her husband and kids. Then she gets the call on her vintage rotary phone: The church’s overachieving music director Helen Armstrong (a formidable Lachrissa Grandberry) has landed in the hospital with multiple broken bones and someone has to take over directing the annual nativity play.

The other moms – who immediately foist this unpleasant task of shepherd wrangling and angel coaching on poor Grace – are portrayed by the uber-talented trio of Laura Gordon, Bree Below and Cynthia Cobb, in matching dresses and pill box hats. Throughout the story, the pearl-clutching bevy sings in three-part harmony about the way things should be, the way things have always been, and the many ways Mrs. Bradley and her version of the Christmas pageant are not living up to their expectations.

Harried and overwhelmed, Estrada’s Grace struggles to stand up to the judgmental church ladies. Meanwhile her son Charlie (Abram Nelson in the Holly cast) is having trouble standing up to the "horrible Herdman" siblings, who steal his lunch and bully him at recess. When he finally tells off the six marauding juvenile delinquents – all dressed in mismatched black and white, in a ’60s avocado, burnt sienna and harvest gold world – Charlie inadvertently brags that at least they can’t terrorize him at Sunday school. Where there are lots of snacks. This is all the incentive that the monochrome gang needs to take over the Christmas play and steal all the best roles, along with anything that’s not nailed down.

Unwilling to ban the Herdmans from participating, Grace desperately tries to get the children to work together, get the former director off her back and get the play over with so her own family can put this episode behind them. But just as the rebellious outsiders are initially terrifying and disruptive, they also force the program’s cast to revisit the Christmas story and consider the Herdmans’ perspective – that of someone who has never heard it before. The verses that longtime Sunday school attendees know by rote are suddenly mined for meaning and modern parallels. In the end, the rambunctious Herdman kids, whose mother is never home, demonstrate the truth of biblical lessons in ways that the disapproving church ladies never can.

Under Molly Rhode’s direction, the 22 young performers (per cast) are constantly in motion for every musical number. Their choreography is energetic and exciting – appropriate for their skill levels and always on point. The lunchroom revolt against the Herdmans, titled "Take My Lunch," is a masterful full-stage riot, and the first act finale "Die Herod, Die!" is so electric that my fellow audience members were singing the refrain during intermission.

The church lady trio, along with Reverend Hopkins (an affable John Gillard Daly), also move in unison, frequently circling Grace with phones in hand and tight-lipped disappointment on their faces. Although she’s in traction, the bossy, backseat director Lachrisa Grandberry also whips and twirls around the stage while singing her stern directions. This is thanks to two young performers dressed as candy-stripers, who move her entire hospital bed across the space with surprising speed.

Musically the kids really shine in an accusatory parody of "The Carol of the Bells" called "My Mom Said," where two of the good girls tell young Beth Bradley (Ryann Schulz in the Holly cast) that her mother is screwing up the entire Christmas play.

But once again, those horrible Herdmans really steal the show. Their tender song, "The Best Gift of All," achingly describes Christmas as a day they look forward to each year – when the church donates food for their family and, for a moment, all their other problems go away. And as Imogene Herdmam, the Holly cast’s Isabella Hansen brings the audience to the brink of tears as her rough and tumble version of Mary sings "On A Night Like This." Her gorgeous voice, ringing through the Todd Wehr Theater as Hansen sings a capella, feels like a holiday miracle.

With Grace frantically running to and fro to cue the sheep and angels for their entrances, and her husband Bob (a charming Chase Stoeger) prompting the "wise guys" when needed, the nativity story comes off to great acclaim, even from the nosy naysayers.

And for anyone who remembers wearing a bathrobe and carrying a stuffed sheep, or adjusting a halo made of glitter for their own Sunday school pageant, this will tug at a heartstring from many Christmases past. But be prepared for an angel wearing wings made of hula hoops, shouting "Shazam!" and leaving a can of pork and beans by the baby’s manger. It turns out, they are worth their weight in gold, frankincense and myrrh.