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Back in our midst are Scrooge, wooden soldiers and scary mice, Parson Brown, a little drummer boy, chestnuts roasting, nog, songs of the season and silver bells.

Add to the list: Barbara Robinson's warm, fuzzy and surprisingly funny "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever," now playing at the Theatre of Youth's Allendale Theatre.

Robinson's sweet tale of a small town's annual Christmas pageant turned upside down by some quirky casting and questionable interpretation of that starry night so long ago in Bethlehem, has returned for only a few performances. Meg Quinn again directs some TOY regulars Mary McMahon, Robert Insana and Bill Schmidt among them and 26 exuberant young actors as angels, curious townsfolk, Wise Men and Mary and Joseph.

The premise is this: The yearly church-sponsored Christmas pageant is in trouble. Longtime director Mrs. Armstrong is in the hospital nice timing and calls go out for a replacement. No luck. Finally, patient and can't-say-no Grace Bradley, minding her own business, agrees to man the ship.

"Guess what?" she asks her husband. "I'm directing the annual pageant."

"Do I have to go?" he wonders.

They proceed. Problems start when the boisterous, bullying Herdman family they have heard that there are snacks at church gatherings show up at auditions and intimidate everyone to the point that Grace has to cast the rowdies in the major roles.

It's chaos. The oafish Herdmans have little knowledge of King Herod, Mary's condition, no room at the inn, frankincense and the significance of this baby's birth in a stable. The Gospel According to Herdman causes a good deal of gasp.

Fledgling director Grace struggles on, part referee now, insisting on order and discipline "Mary and Joseph must be at every rehearsal!" she demands and the pageant stumbles toward opening night. Cigar-puffing Imogene Herdman, featured as Mary and growing into the role, nevertheless causes a fire. Dress rehearsal is a mess. Grace is distraught. This has turned into the pageant from hell.

But, as someone said long ago, all's well that ends well. Somehow, the Herdmans rise to the occasion, Imogene/Mary is transformed and more than two dozen winged little angels sing gloriously about first noels and an invitation to come all ye faithful.

Director Grace, when arguments arise, advises her cast that "There are no small roles, just small actors." True. But, there are small voices on occasion and they speak in haste sometimes and they screech and shriek. Audiences can live with this. The show is fun.

TOY's adult actors are fine: the voice-of-reason McMahon, the able Insana (imagine, a father-figure who is not a dolt), Joyce Carolyn, Annette Daniels Taylor, Jennifer Fitzery, Adam Rath and Schmidt, a veteran of 21 TOY seasons.

The children are delightful. Corinne McLoughlin does some nice work as the narrator, and Eric Marsch is a Bradley sibling. Lydia Sulaiman is a fiery Alice, and Justine Rodriguez, a memorable "Madeline" some seasons back, returns as Mary.

The show is a Christmas gift from TOY and impresario Quinn, her technical wizards and a cast obviously enjoying itself. The pageant lives for another year.

***

What: "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever"

3 stars (out of 4)

When: Through Sunday

Where: Theatre of Youth,? 203 Allen St.

Tickets: : $24-$26

Info: www.theatreofyouth.org, 884-4400