The current community-theater production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever! presented Dec. 2-4 and 9-11 by the North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre has a lot of rough edges. There was a change in directors, and several cast changes, during the rehearsal process; and the show suffers accordingly. It never quite jells.

Director Brian Lord doesn’t quite have the cast that he needs to make this show hit on all eight cylinders. He has a stage chock-full of child performers, plus a few adult actors and actresses of varying degrees of experience and ability; but there is not enough combined experience not to mention panache in this NRACT presentation to give this play’s host of colorful characters fully three-dimensional portrayals.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever! adapted for the stage by Barbara Robinson from her perennially popular 1972 novel about the horrible Herdman children and how they mercilessly bullied their classmates at school and then invaded rehearsals for a church’s annual Christmas pageant and strong-armed their way into all the plum roles is a children’s show, with a message and a mostly child cast. But few of the children have roles where they speak more than a few sentences. Most of the children have to pantomime their parts, and that is much harder in practice than it is in theory. It is difficult for an inexperienced child actor or actress to project a character’s personality merely though pantomime.

For example, there are six Herdman children; but only three of them Imogene (Natalie Rose Cooper), Leroy (Cathy Dalton), and little Gladys (played Saturday night by understudy Courtney Pisano, subbing for Alexandria Hanyok) get much face time. The other three Claude (Pierce Clawson), Ollie (Ashley Dize), and Ralph (Spencer Bloom) mainly have to act tough by frowning and sneering and striking threatening poses.

The fact that Ralph, the black-sunglasses-wearing oldest and presumably biggest and baddest Herdman boy, is played by an actor roughly half the size of the actress who plays Ralph’s younger brother Leroy in drag is somewhat disconcerting; and so is the fact that young Kyle Prudencio, who plays little Charlie Bradley, has a horrible barking cough that can be heard all over the theater whether he’s onstage or backstage.

Prudencio’s charming characterization of poor little Charlie, whom big bad Leroy uses as a punching bag and robs of his lunch money every day, is matched by Claire Kristin Cooper’s pert portrayal of Charlie’s older sister Beth, who plays an angel in the pageant and serves as the show’s knowing narrator. Kristin Cooper is suitably spunky as Grace Bradley, overstressed mom of Beth and Charlie and reluctant but fiercely determined substitute director of the Christmas pageant. But Kevin Underwood is less convincing as Grace’s husband, Bob; and soft-spoken Albert Meir barely registers as the Rev. Hopkins, a milquetoast who is up in arms and would rather cancel the pageant than risk the Herdman children running amok.

Natalie Rose Cooper adds a poignant portrait of Imogene Herdman, a tough cigar-smoking tomboy on the outside, but soft on the inside. Her portrayal of the Virgin Mary is truly a life-changing experience.

Cathy Dalton is suitably scary as Leroy Herdman; and precocious little Courtney Pisano nearly steals the show as Gladys Herdman, who plays the loudest, sassiest angel ever.

NRACT’s rendition of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever! runs less than an hour all told, but theater performs the play with a late intermission that means that Act II runs a mere 15 minutes. The result is an unnecessarily prolonged but not necessarily pleasant visit with novelist/playwright Barbara Robinson’s cast of unforgettable characters who combine to teach her readers/viewers an important lesson about the meaning of Christmas.

North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre presents The Best Christmas Pageant Ever! Friday-Saturday, Dec. 2-3 and 9-10, at 7 p.m.; and Sunday, Dec. 4 and 11, at 2 p.m. at NRACT in the Greystone Village Shopping Center, 7713-51 Leadmine Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina. $10-$12 evenings, $6-$8 matinees. 919/866-0228. North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre: [inactive 4/08].