"Come feel the Savior's love," was the invitation extended this year for the annual Hill Cumorah Pageant, staged July 9-10 and 13-17.
The 640 cast members, technical staff and 27 young work crew members strived to make the production, now in its 62nd year, live up to the promise. When the gates close on the last performance, an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 people will have attended.
With brilliant costuming and dazzling, Hollywood-style special effects, 10 Book of Mormon scenes are played out on the natural setting of Hill Cumorah, the location where the Nephite plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated were revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith.
The culmination, of course, is the scene in which the resurrected Christ descends from the heavens and appears to His "other sheep" in the ancient Americas. But leading up to it are scenes of Lehi's family leaving Jerusalem before its destruction, Lehi's and Nephi's visions of Christ's ministry, the building of the ship, the voyage to ancient America, the burning of the Prophet Abinadi, the ministry of Alma, and Samuel the Lamanite's prophecy of the events preceding Christ's coming.
Much of the work to bring these events to life has been performed by Rick Josephson, special effects director, who is retiring this year.
Both magic and mayhem have been created for the production, said publicity director Richard Ahern, which includes explosions, earthquakes, rain storms, a prophet burned at the stake, a 37-foot erupting volcano and a ship struck by lightning, all on stage and engineered by Brother Josephson and his crew.
Brother Josephson has worked with multi-million-dollar budgets for Hollywood productions and has done special effects for the network television shows "Touched by an Angel" and "Promised Land." But, he said, the work that has been the most significant and meaningful in his life has been the unpaid labor he does at Hill Cumorah.
"There is a special spirit here at pageant time," Brother Josephson said. "It is a one hundred percent volunteer effort from the over 600 cast members. It is the only vacation most of the families have. It's all about sacrifice and commitment. It recharges me each year."
In doing pageant special effects, he is always careful never to allow the message to be lost in the spectacle. "The message in the Hill Cumorah Pageant," he explained, "is that nations endure when they are not overcome with pride and materialism, a message for our time."
That same commitment to the message of the pageant motivates the 27 volunteers, ages 17-18, who comprise the work crew.
"They have a unique summer-vacation experience working for the pageant, though some would question the word 'vacation' because they work such long hours, sometimes 12-14 hours a day in the sun without pay." Brother Ahern said. "Yet, they so often say when their seven-week stint is over, 'It was the greatest experience of my life,' and happily apply again for the next year. Sometimes over 100 applications are received, and only 20-28 are chosen."
The cast is also chosen by application, Brother Ahern said, and there are no "stars."
"The directors have said that if it were professional Broadway theater, it would take at least three months to cast this many actors," he said. "The directors do the casting in one Saturday morning. They are in rehearsal that afternoon, with a full run-through on Wednesday night. They are cast according to physical stereotype. Voice is not important, as all lines are lip-synched. The cast members are spread out on the field in small groups arranged according to gender and age. Everyone gathers in designated areas in different parts of the field. There is one main director, Rodger Sorensen from Idaho, with four additional directors, three choreographers and a "battle master" for the battle scenes. By noon everyone is cast in their respective parts."
Brother Ahern said the hill is an appropriate location for the story. "The very magnitude of the hillside calls for a large cast and accommodates the battle scenes and dramatic moments very well."
The pageant is presented at dusk, about 9:15 p.m., with has seating for about 9,000. and grassy areas for lawn chairs, blankets and picnics.
There has never been an admission charge, but food is provided by local Lions and Rotary clubs, who use the sales as fund raisers for their service activities.