The ancient occasion that occasioned the ever-expanding holiday season gets a splashy theatrical treatment in the Crystal Cathedral’s “The Glory of Christmas,” an annual religious pageant that’s been wowing local auds since 1981. Replete with airborne angels whizzing through the vast confines of the Cathedral, a menagerie of live, Biblically Correct beasts and more Christmas tunes than an Andy Williams 2-CD set, show makes up in straightforward showbiz pizazz what it may lack in subtler aesthetic considerations. Boffo biz looks likely to continue ’til Armageddon.
Show gets off to a crisp start with the betrothal of Mary (Mardi Robins) and Joseph (Bruce Johnson), followed in short order by the arrival of the Angel Gabriel, giving Mary the good, if surprising, news. Some nasty Romans arrive on horseback to announce the census, which requires Mary and Joseph’s return from Nazareth to their hometown of Bethlehem, on which journey lodgings were so famously and picturesquely difficult to secure. (Non-denominational narration by Thurl Ravenscroft (!) has its revelations: The fabled manger, we learn, was probably just a cave that sometimes housed livestock.)
Familiar story (Isaiah predicted the highlights back in the eighth century B.C.) climaxes early with Jesus’ birth, whereupon dramatic arc ends abruptly. Latter half of the pageant is largely given over to song and dance celebrating the event (“The First Noel,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “Silent Night,” “Away in a Manger,” etc.). Traditional lineup of tunes is augmented by some contempo additions, notably a commendable number espousing Christ’s pan-racial appeal, credited to Hutson-Burt. (Song’s heart is in the right place, even when its lyrics give pause: “Some children see him with almond eyes … with skin of yellow hue.”)
Vocal contributions are strong across the board, with Robins’ ringing soprano a standout in her many songs and Tod Fitzpatrick as the lead shepherd displaying a thrilling baritone on “What Child Is This.” (Roles are double- and sometimes triple-cast, since as many as three perfs a day are given.) Junior singers acquit themselves charmingly.
Acting is uneven, as may be expected from the mixture of professionals and amateurs in the cast. Robins is earnest and affecting as Mary, and Daniel Bryan Cartmell gives a nice oily turn as King Herod, but non-pros Chris Blanas as the Innkeeper and Roman Captain Michael McClanahan aren’t Broadway-bound.
Cast of assorted mammals will delight kids, with the sheep displaying a perhaps forgivable tendency toward scene-stealing bleating (after all, how much stage work is there for sheep these days?). Even in the cavernous confines of the Crystal Cathedral, the camels are surprisingly, er, fragrant.
Show’s highlight is the host of angels that glide out over the audience at dizzying heights, and fly back to their celestial berths with breathtaking speed. The girls clearly have faith in both God and the skills of stage-flight specialists Flying by Foy, whose Peter Foy outdoes himself here.
Charles Lisanby’s single set features a beautiful star-dotted sky backdrop and a naturalistic landscape that depicts various Biblical locations with ease, and the lighting by Perry Halford and Terry Larson is used to crackerjack theatrical effect (although a couple of the angelic hosts lost their follow spots at the perf reviewed). Richard Bostard’s costumes are gaudy and lavish for the kings and Romans, properly peasant-like for the rest. Acoustics in the Cathedral are surprisingly strong, with live trumpeting and the house’s major organ among the highlights.
Show closes with the adoration of the Magi and a final tableau that bathes the Holy Family in spectacular light, as director-writer Paul David Dunn’s narration reminds us of Jesus’ significance to civilization and the general details of his future life and career (see “The Glory of Easter”). At this point, a cold wind blows through the Cathedral, perhaps to add a dramatic frisson to recollections of the more vivid of Christ’s misfortunes, or perhaps to whisk away the lingering scent of camel. It’s a theatrical touch that succeeds on both counts.