'City of Joseph' now 20 years old

In this, its 20th anniversary season, the "City of Joseph," Nauvoo's annual outdoor musical, marked a series of "biggests" and "firsts."

It commenced Aug. 2 with the largest cast and opening night audience in its two decades of existence. And for the first time, it has been under the leadership of a presidency, with a new director who oversaw a new opening and closing and some innovative staging techniques. The show closed Aug. 10.Presented in a grassy amphitheater just east of the Church's Nauvoo Visitors Center, the production was attended opening night by between 9,000 and 10,000 people, and the following night by about 7,500. Cast and crew this year totaled more than 450. They hail from throughout the Midwest and elsewhere. Many are direct descendants of those who left the city 150 years ago.

"This year we've had the most changes and the largest number of first-time members of the cast ever," said Chris J. Frogley, second counselor in the presidency and publicity director.

It is a miracle it came together, he said, considering the show is presented with only 41/2 days of rehearsal. In that time, cast and crew, (about a third of whom were first timers this year) must prepare 16 original and historical muscial selections with intricate choreography, all presented on a three-acre, five-level stage and coordinated with pre-recorded music and narration and a computerized lighting and audio system.

A miracle may not be too much to ask considering what the show commemorates - the building of Nauvoo into one of Illinois' largest cities in just six years from 1839 until the Saints' forced exodus in 1846.

From histories and journals, the story is presented, covering the First Vision, founding of the city, missionary work, the organization of the Relief Society and other events.

A scene in which Joseph Smith is depicted in his campaign for the presidency of the United States builds into a patriotic fervor as the sky is filled with fireworks. Another scene honors the Relief Society with a series of vignettes on stage that evolve into a live re-creation of the statuary at the Monument to Women outside the Nauvoo Visitors Center.

Don Oscarson, a former stake president in Milwaukee, Wis., wrote and created the pageant in 1976. This is the first year he has not been directly involved, having recently moved to Arizona.

"Twenty years ago, the stage was about a third this size," he reflected at the opening night performance. "And the trees were so small you could actually see the Mississippi River flowing by in the background during the opening scene. We thought we had a tremendous cast and crew in size that year, about 125. And of course there's been a lot of reconfiguring to the stage and the area so that we can accommodate the tens of thousands of people who come."

He said the production has noticably improved the image of the Church locally. "We have noticed over the years, the real tempering and changing of the spirit of the communities around concerning the Saints in Nauvoo."

The pageant began, Brother Frogley said, as an outgrowth of Brother Oscarson's "Because of Elizabeth," performed at the dedication of the Nauvoo Visitors Center in 1971. He wrote the narration and lyrics, then asked around, and was put in touch with Maughan McMurdie, a music professor at Western Illinois University, who composed the music. F. Gerald Bench joined the team as director, and the show premiered in 1976 as part of Illinois' celebration of the U.S. Bicentennial.

This year, the three have passed the baton to other leaders. In January, Joel I. Orgill, Bettendorf Ward, Davenport Iowa Stake, was called as president, with Gene Mann, Quincy Ward, Nauvoo Illinois Stake, as first counselor and Brother Frogley, also of the Bettendorf Ward, as second counselor.

Brother Frogley has been with the show since its inception, portraying Joseph Smith in past years. The new executive director, Lynn Bodily, has been involved from the first also.

At the advice of the North America Central Area presidency, the new pageant presidency has called a council that focuses on giving cast members an edifying experience during their stay in Nauvoo.

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