Shazam! The Herdman kids are back for a 32nd year, bringing the true story of Christmas to Cape Fear Regional Theatre with “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.”
The story follows the Herdmans, a family of children everyone fears because of their unkempt appearance and penchant for misbehaving. Even so, they manage to land lead roles in the local Christmas pageant and what develops is a plot that keeps Fayetteville families coming back year after year.
With over 120 children in four casts — “Clove,” “Cinnamon,” “Nutmeg,” and “Ginger” — the pageant is bigger than in recent years. Ashley Owen, CFRT’s marketing director, said a record number of children auditioned, making it one of the theatre’s most competitive shows to date.
“The casts are bigger than last year, but the story itself is the same,” Owen said. “We tried to make room for as many children as we could.”
Julie Gaede, 11, is portraying Gladys Herdman after starring as a baby sheep her first year in the play.
“I’ve been trying to get the role of Gladys for five years,” Gaede said. “I thought this could be the year and have been trying to improve. I couldn’t believe it until the first day of rehearsal that I finally had the part.”
Gaede said the best part of being in “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” is the story.
“It’s a family that is broken, coming together and learning the true story of Christmas,” Gaede said. “It’s the entire reason we celebrate Christmas.”
The homeschooled 6th-grader is one among the several casts of children who perform on CFRT’s stage this year.
“We have students from all over Cumberland County schools, including public and private, even children who travel from Hoke County to be in the show,” Owen said.
One of the main characters — a cigar-smoking and foul-mouthed teenage bully named Imogene Herdman — is played by 15-year-old Sophia Dean.
This is the sophomore at Terry Sanford High School’s eighth year in the production.
“I went from a baby sheep to the angel choir,” Dean said. “Then I played Claude for two years. I love to meet new people and see what new things they bring in the show.”
Dean, whose character has one of the biggest changes of heart in the pageant, said although she likes meeting new people, she also loves this particular play. It feels, she said, like a reunion when she sees old friends.
One cast newcomer is Malik McMillan-Brandon, 15, a 10th-grader at Reid Ross Classical School.
“I had never seen the show and didn’t have the slightest clue about it until summer camp this year,” McMillan-Brandon said.
He performed in CFRT’s rendition of “Aladdin” this summer, playing the Sultan, along with Dean, who portrayed Jasmine. In this production, McMillan-Brandon plays Reverend Hopkins, one of the few adult roles played by children. He said the experience has been moving.
“When you see the development of the Herdman characters, it’s a very weepy moment,” he said.
Jennifer Sell, who is back again after directing the show in 2022, said she loves getting to work with the children and seeing what they bring to the show. The CFRT director and education associate was a student-teacher before working at the theater.
“I love working with the kids and how they work together to bring a fresh show every year,” Sell said.
Under her direction, the casts will be bringing the best of Christmas to the CFRT stage starting Dec. 2.
“It’s Christmas joy every night,” she said.
Tickets are $16 for adults and $11 for children. Every cast has Military Appreciation Nights from Dec. 5-8.
Performances run through Dec. 17, with 7:30 p.m. performances Tuesday through Saturday, 6:30 p.m. performances on Sundays and 2 p.m. matinees on Saturdays and Sundays.
For more information, visit https://www.cfrt.org/the-best-christmas-pageant-ever/ or call the box office at 910-323-4233. Cape Fear Regional Theatre is located at 1209 Hay St.
Editor’s note: Jami McLaughlin’s children are among the performers in one of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” casts.