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For unto us, a tradition returns


December 2021


It’s that time of year: Gladys Herdman is Fayetteville famous, the marquee lights in Haymount are twinkling more nights than not, and there is not a dry eye in the house when Imogene softly cradles plastic baby Jesus, arms heavy with new awareness.

“...this was the best one,” we can only tearfully nod in agreement with the character, Mrs. Slocum, as we coax the lumps in our throats to dissipate. After bearing witness to one of Fayetteville’s most treasured holiday traditions, remarkably performed by a cast of mostly children, we meet the brisk air with renewed hope for the season, and the future. 

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Cape Fear Regional Theatre’s production of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” a feel-good show about six rough and tumble siblings who decide to participate in a church’s annual reenactment of the Christmas story. The treasured antics of the Herdmans, sorely missed in the hiatus of 2020, have weaved their way into the fabric of local culture.

“BCPE,” as the play is affectionately known among Fayetteville theater folk, will make its triumphant return on Dec. 4 and run through Dec. 19. 

Like everything else this year, it may look a little different, but the sentiment and quality of the performance will be the same. Actors wore masks and safely distanced for all rehearsals. Depending on conditions, they will wear masks, face shields, or hopefully just their sweet, funny faces for performances – whatever keeps everyone safe. 

The BCPE audience will be first to enjoy the result of a nine-month-long renovation of the theater auditorium. “It almost feels like a celebration. This whole time, we’ve been saying, ‘We can’t wait to have people back in our space,” said the theater’s marketing director, Ashley Owen. 

Amid the pandemic and renovation, CFRT found creative ways to connect with their audience, holding events at the Cape Fear Botanical Garden, an auto shop and in parking lots. “It’s been fantastic,” said Owen, “but we are so thrilled that people are going to walk through our front doors and sit in our theater and watch a show on our stage and we are so excited that it’s ‘The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.”’

A state-of-the-art heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system will fill the theater with fresh air. Rob Kaplowitz, a Tony[1]award winning sound designer, personally designed the new sound system for the theater, visiting several times to install and perfect it. “The floors are new. The rows are wider, and the seats are deeper. Every seat in the theater has Broadway-quality sound. It’s familiar, but it’s brand new. It’s just beautiful,” Owen said.

Jenny deViere will be among the eager crowd to welcome back the nostalgia. At 12 years old, deViere was first to grace the stage as main protagonist Beth Bradley, a role she played for five years, and reprised for a special all-alumni cast in the production’s 25th year. Her sister, Laura Beaver, spent many years as the unforgettably loveable antagonist Gladys Herdman.

She is happy to reminisce about her time in BCPE. “The first director of the show was Holden Hansen. He treated us like adults. He made us accountable and responsible. We learned not to judge a book by its cover,” she said of the positive lessons she hopes theater will one day impart on her son, Grey, 5, who is already earning his acting chops in CFRT studio classes. 

She laughed, recalling the early years of the show. Ironically, the troupe was displaced by a massive renovation in the early 1990s that fashioned CFRT into the space we know now. Winter morning rehearsals were conducted in an unheated, unfurnished building downtown, and performances took place at the USO building. “We froze, and we had so much fun!”

While local audiences were unfamiliar with the play the first year, its heartfelt message and action-packed, sometimes laugh-out-loud content quickly won over Fayetteville. “Kids loved it. They loved Imogene smoking that cigar. They loved the scene where the kids are jumping the firefighter’s hose like a jump rope. Everyone wanted to be a Herdman,” deViere remembered fondly. Kids still want to be a Herdman. After auditioning more children in 2021 than in the two previous seasons of the project, the theater team selected 120 to complete four separate casts of characters. “Everyone is searching for something in this moment that feels normal,” said Owen of the turnout. “It’s a safe space where kids  know they have friends and adults who care about them. That’s what BCPE is all about.”

Briefly, theater leadership entertained resurrecting the notion of an all-adult cast, but realized that even with a limited run, it would take away opportunities from the kids. “We want to give them every opportunity. They’re the ones who need this,” said Owen. 

Instead, the theater went in the opposite direction: For the 30th anniversary, all adult roles, apart from Mr. and Mrs. Bradley, will be played by children, affording a new experience for actors and audience alike. “We have some of the funniest kids playing these roles and the audience is going to love it,” Owen said. A tenet of the production has always been to expose children to theater, devoting as many as 24 daytime shows, filled to 300-seat-capacity, to area students. Student matinees will be fewer this year due to field trip restrictions, but CFRT will prioritize safety, and the show will go on. “It’s a complicated moment, but many students have never seen anything like this before,” said Owen. “It’s magical.” 

Very soon, the curtain will open on that magic. Captivated eyes of kindergartners will follow snowflakes falling softly onto the stage. Cast members will delight in the giggles and tears produced by hours of devotion to complex characters. The audience will fill the auditorium – finally together and finally home. It’ll all happen for the 30th time this month, but like every year, the feeling will be exciting and new. “It doesn’t need modernization. It doesn’t need iPads or funky music,” explained deViere of the story’s timeless message of acceptance and love.

“There is so much more to people than what you see,” she concluded, very much echoing the sentiments of her beloved Beth Bradley in the final scene of the play:

We all thought the pageant was about Jesus, but that was only part of it. . . because of the Herdmans, it was a whole new story.