Every December, the performing arts conspire to get everyone in the holiday mood. Ballet brings its Nutcracker, music offers holiday pops concerts and Handel's Messiah. Theater stages A Christmas Carol but, over the last three decades, a new theatrical tradition has arisen - The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.

Every December, the performing arts conspire to get everyone in the holiday mood. Ballet brings its Nutcracker, music offers holiday pops concerts and Handel's Messiah. Theater stages A Christmas Carol but, over the last three decades, a new theatrical tradition has arisen - The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.

First published as a magazine story, then as a book in 1971, American author Barbara Robinson's tale of the rough-hewn Herdman kids taking over a Sunday school Christmas pageant was adapted for the theater in 1982 and has been performed thousands of times since then. Robinson, who was born and raised in Portsmouth, Ohio, passed away last year at age 85. According to the Samuel French organization, which licenses productions of the play, 211 troupes in the U.S. and Canada, along with one church group in Hong Kong, will perform The Best Christmas Pageant Ever in 2014.

This year, Columbus Children's Theatre stages its 10th production of this now-classic tale of redemption. CCT performed its first Pageant in 1995 and repeats it every two to four years.

"It's perfect theater," said CCT's artistic director Bill Goldsmith. "You laugh, you cry, you go out feeling good about life."

The show opens Nov. 28 for a run of 27 performances through Dec. 21. Preparations began Sept. 28 when auditions took place over a three-day period. The 60 hopefuls who auditioned were pared down to a cast of 21 kids and teens and seven adults (not counting cast members' dads who will make run-on appearances as firemen during the shows).

Ellie Levine, a 16-year-old from New Albany, performed in the 2012 production as one of the well-behaved Sunday school choir members. This time, when she showed up to audition, she sensed pretty quickly that Goldsmith had his eye on her for one of the lead roles - Imogene, the oldest of the six Herdmans, who leads her siblings with a trigger temper and an iron fist.

"It was a little bit of a surprise," Ellie said, "because I didn't know if I could be that mean."

Ellie got the part, and rehearsals began Oct. 12, a Sunday evening. Goldsmith created a firm but flexible schedule for the seven weeks of preparations. When working with minors, as he has for 26 years at CCT, Goldsmith said he accommodates academic obligations and other extracurricular activities but also expects his cast members to function like young professionals. It starts with how they address each other.

"We're first names only," Goldsmith said. "I'm 'Bill' to them. It empowers a kid to call an adult by their first name."

Rehearsals are scheduled for Sundays through Thursdays most weeks. On Sundays, Goldsmith writes a schedule for the week to come based on which scenes need the most work. He also doesn't hesitate to stop work on a scene. "You have to be careful not to overwork a scene and lose the spark," he said.

On the evening of Oct. 26, two weeks into the process, the entire cast gathered at CCT's downtown Columbus home for its first "rough-thru," a stop-and-start practice of the entire 55-minute play during which the actors can still use scripts and Goldsmith can adjust the blocking (i.e., movement patterns).

Sam Blosser, who plays the minister's beleaguered son Elmer Hopkins, is a first-timer in CCT productions, though he has performed in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever before with a home-school performing arts group. The 10-year-old Clintonville resident later confessed he's had to resist the temptation to memorize all his lines right away.

"Bill tells us at the first rehearsal to not memorize your lines because they might change," Sam said. But the hardest part, he added, has been the stage directions - not learning them but writing them down.

"There's no flat surface to write on," Sam said.

The rehearsals fluctuate between entire-cast sessions and evenings when just a handful of actors are needed. The six young actors playing the Herdmans probably have the most demanding schedule, but Ellie said the cast's camaraderie makes it doable.

"It helps me relax," she said, "knowing we're all in this together."

And then the shows begin. The cast will work without understudies. Yet, despite the grind of 27 shows over 24 days, sometimes with three shows on one day, the actors - young and not-as-young - rarely miss a show, Goldsmith said.

"I think it's adrenaline," said Ellie. "And we know we can rely on each other because everyone in this cast is so strong."