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Christian Theater: More than a show

Courtesy Sight and Sound

There’s something about the theater — the lights, the costumes, the music and the drama — that can make a profound impact on people.

Think of how many times a touching play has left you teary-eyed or the occasions when you’ve walked out of a musical humming the show’s signature tune. Now imagine if those productions not only entertained, but also drove home a message of faith, hope and love.

Broadway may always be a place where starry-eyed actors go to make names for themselves. But at other establishments across the country, dedicated groups of men and women are producing Christian dramas and musicals meant to touch hearts and souls. Whether they are classic Old Testament stories set to music, elaborate Passion plays depicting the death and resurrection of Jesus, or original dramas set in modern times, these shows present themes that will resound long after the final curtain call.

Next time you plan a trip to the theater for your church travel group, consider visiting one of these Christian establishments.

Sight and Sound Theatres
Lancaster, Pa., and Branson, Mo.
What began more than 30 years ago as a Pennsylvania couple showing vacation photo slideshows in their church has grown into Sight and Sound Theatres, the nation’s largest Christian theater company. With locations in Lancaster, Pa., and Branson, Mo., Sight and Sound welcomes hundreds of thousands of visitors each year with Broadway-style musicals adapted from Bible stories.

Courtesy Sight and Sound

“They do all original music and all original productions,” said Sight and Sound spokeswoman Kate Renfrow. “All of the sets, costume and everything are done in house by Sight and Sound employees. One of the highlights of these productions is the fact that they’re performed on a stage that’s twice the size of Radio City Music Hall to accommodate our 45-foot-high sets.”

The professional feel and large scale of the shows are reflected in many aspects of the productions: The original scores are recorded by symphonies in places such as Prague; Nashville, Tenn.; or Los Angeles, and the productions feature dozens of live animals on stage, from camels and donkeys to cattle, llamas and a hairless cat.

The music and staging are employed to present Old Testament stories in memorable ways. During 2010 and 2011, the Lancaster location will be presenting “Joseph” while “Noah” plays in Branson.

Groups that visit Sight and Sound can also arrange to take a behind-the-scenes tour of the theater.

“The tours are conducted by actors that are in the cast,” Renfrow said. “You get to go backstage and see the animal dressing rooms and the actors’ dressing rooms. You get to go onstage and then go to the set-building area, where you can see sets being built for future productions.”

NarroWay Productions
Fort Mill, S.C.
The folks at NarroWay Productions have a knack for taking old buildings and using them to present new productions. In 1996, they launched their dinner theater in an old amphitheater on what was formerly Jim Bakker’s property; in 2006, they renovated an old gambling hall in Fort Mill, S.C., into a state-of-the-art theater.

Courtesy NarrowWay Productions

The company has been producing Broadway-style, Christian-themed shows ever since.
“All NarroWay shows are originals. They can’t be seen anywhere else,” said group sales manager Jody Taylor. “A lot of the musicals have a full cast with live animals, great songs and great sets.”

A cast of more than 300 actors work to bring to life the three or more different productions that appear in a rotating schedule. The shows are a variety of biblical dramas and period tales. “The Fourth Cross” is based on the biblical story of Barabbas; “Not Just Another Love Story” is a patriotic World War II period play; “The Gospel According to Tennessee” is also a period piece, set in the Appalachian Mountains in 1926.

Another production, “Fishes and Loaves,” features some of Jesus’ parables and miracles.
“It has the feeding of the 5,000,” Taylor said. “Since all of our shows are dinner productions, [the cast] actually eat within the show, and they feed the audience fishes and loaves.”

Meals at the dinner theater are served an hour before showtime by costumed actors who appear in character.

The Great American Passion Play

Eureka Springs, Ark.
One of the country’s most successful outdoor dramas, the Great American Passion Play has been performed for more than four decades in Eureka Springs, a vacation destination in Arkansas’ Ozark Mountains.

“This will be our 43rd season,” said Sam Ray, the production’s executive director. “We’re close to 8 million visitors from around the world in that time. We’re told that we’re the most attended outdoor drama of our type.”

The show uses modern-day language to present scenes from Jesus’ ministry, including the final week leading up to his crucifixion. Several miracles are depicted, including Lazarus being raised from the dead and the healing of Jairus’ daughter.

The most spectacular scene uses high-tech stagecraft to re-create Jesus’ ascension into heaven.

“Jesus rises in the air about 100 feet above your head; then all of a sudden he disappears,” Ray said. “The way it’s designed with the lighting and everything, you can’t even tell that there’s any wires or cables.”

The Passion play is just one component of what has become a large attraction in Eureka Springs. The complex also features Christ of the Ozarks, a seven-story statue of Jesus, as well as reproductions of scenes and buildings from biblical Jerusalem. Groups who come for the play can also explore the on-site Bible museum, which has a collection of over 10,000 Bibles, or attend a Christian comedy show in the newly opened dinner theater.

The Promise
Glen Rose, Texas
During September and October, groups crowd into the 3,250-seat amphitheater in Glen Rose, Texas, for “The Promise.” Founded 22 years ago by a group of Texas businessmen looking to spread the gospel, this large-scale theatrical presentation of the life of Christ employs hundreds of actors, animals and special effects.

Courtesy The Promise

“We’ve got a cast and crew of over 150,” said Kristen Gibson, the play’s assistant producer. “We’ve got animals that include camels, horses, donkeys and sheep, and we have a moat of water running in front of our stage.”

The show’s cast comes from across Texas and uses the same script and score that was first created for the show 22 years ago. The staging has evolved, though, to include a “rain current” that simulates the storm that Jesus calmed on the Sea of Galilee, as well as pyrotechnics and other effects.

Groups that come for “The Promise” can also take a backstage tour to learn about the special attention to detail that goes into the production.

“People can go backstage and talk to our props master, who shows them how our props are made,” Gibson said. “She’s very thorough with her research: Any food onstage is real food that is made every night for our scenes, and she burns her own incense. It’s very authentic.”

During the tour, visitors also see costumes and sets, meet some of the actors and can walk onto the stage, which is half the length of a football field.

BibleWalk’s ‘Dinner With Grace’
Mansfield, Ohio
The members of Diamond Hill Cathedral in Mansfield, Ohio, have a heart for outreach that has led to the creation of BibleWalk, a biblical wax-figure and art museum, and “Dinner With Grace,” a weekly dinner theater presentation.

Courtesy Dinner with Grace

On Saturday afternoons and evenings, members come together to stage dinner theater productions for audiences of up to 250 people.

“The scripts are original scripts, the cast members are all volunteers, and the hearts of the people are certainly in this,” said Julia Hardin, who writes and directs all of the shows. “Many people remark that they can’t believe that our people haven’t had any formal training. We’ve had wonderful success with our dinner theater, but we give all the glory to the Lord.”

Hardin said that all the productions are focused on ministry. The most popular show from last year, “The Essential Ingredient,” touched so many people that she wrote a sequel called “Mourning to Morning” that is being performed this summer. At Christmastime, the group will present a new play called “The Hidden Treasure,” and next Easter season will bring the return of the Passover-themed “He Brought Us Out of Egypt.”

“During the Easter play, we serve a traditional Passover meal,” Hardin said. “We also have a regular chicken dinner beforehand and end the show with Communion.”

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.