"El Salvador del Mundo," far from a typical foray into musical theater, brightly flourished all the same during three showings Dec. 4-5 at the Bountiful Regional Center in North Salt Lake.
After more than two years of planning, "El Salvador del Mundo" — the Spanish-language adaptation of the popular LDS stage production "Savior of the World" — successfully channeled the considerable talents of amateur and first-time actors from several cultural backgrounds into a cohesive and poignant production depicting the circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ.
"I thought it was fantastic," said Elder Rodolfo C. Franco, an Area Seventy who attended the Dec. 5 evening showing. "I've been to a few of the rehearsals, and I saw the development over the last few months. The enthusiasm was there, and the effort and the willingness to do it were great."
Genesis of a production
As part of its Hispanic Initiative, the Church annually sponsors a cultural or spiritual program in Spanish in the three areas of the Church in Utah. Last year, for example, a festive amalgamation of folkloric song and dance entitled "Recibid al Rey" ("Receive the King") took place in the Tabernacle on Temple Square.
Dan Wilson, an employee of the Church's Welfare Department, dons his creative cap to produce the yearly Latino program. In March 2007, he, along with the Latino artistic committee, agreed to produce "Savior of the World" in Spanish for showing in 2009. The committee obtained the Spanish translation of the script and music from the Music and Cultural Arts division of the Priesthood Department. After reviewing the script, the decision was made that "El Salvador del Mundo" would consist of only a single act for the 2009 presentation. Whereas "Savior of the World" portrays both the birth and resurrection of the Savior, the Spanish adaptation would focus only on the Nativity this year.
"In 'Savior of the World,' the first act is based on the birth of Jesus Christ and it concludes at the moment of the birth," said musical director Alejandro Gomez. "Because it is our Christmas program this year, we decided that we would only do the act that dealt with the birth."
One of the greatest ways that the production focuses on the importance of the Savior and His mission is through the music. Themes that carry a powerful message are repeated throughout the work, effectively tying the various songs and dialogue together and directing the focus onto the importance of the Savior and His mission.
By virtue of the fact that all of the actors needed to be able to speak Spanish with reasonable proficiency, a major obstacle to casting "El Salvador del Mundo" was having to cast such a geographically wide net in order to secure sufficient talent.
"One of the biggest challenges is the distance we cover," Brother Wilson said. "There's a lot of travel involved to pull all these people together. Our talent pool is from Ogden to Santaquin, and so we draw from the Latino community throughout the Wasatch Front. Part of the biggest challenge is just the logistics of being able to get where we need to go to audition people."
In lieu of open auditions, Brother Gomez tapped into the music committee he chairs for recommendations of Spanish speakers with musical talent. Each committee member provided 10-15 names, and from that talent pool came the cast of approximately 120.
Although every cast member possesses more than a modicum of musical talent, relatively few can actually read music — fewer than one in five, in fact. Brother Gomez circumvented the potentially sticky deficiency by creating musical CDs so cast members could learn their singing parts at home. With singing parts already assimilated in advance, rehearsals could then transition away from learning the music and focus more on perfecting the presentation.
"El Salvador del Mundo" featured actors cast in prominent roles despite having zero formal acting experience. An example of as much is found is Miguel Medel, the actor who played Zacharias. Brother Medel possesses strong musical talents. In the end, he relied on that talent to overcome a palpable case of stage anxiety.
"It's the first time he's done anything like this," Brother Gomez said. "He was telling me all along that he was afraid that he was going to get so nervous he was going to forget the music and his lines.
"Certainly Miguel Medel didn't consider himself the greatest actor in the world. But in terms of vocals and in terms of the way he portrayed himself in a very dignified manner, his vocals were outstanding. He came out of a cocoon to give a great, great performance."
While all cast members share in common the ability to speak Spanish, potential problems could have arisen from the fact that the cast of "El Salvador del Mundo" hails from a wide variety of nationalities. However, sharing a central focus on the Savior's birth proved a sufficient antidote to provincial pride.
"Another challenge we have is multiplicity and diversity, because we all speak Spanish but are from different nations," Brother Gomez said. "Sometimes there is jealousy and divisions, cultural idiosyncrasies that sometimes don't play very well from nation to nation.
"Obviously, the message was a message of love. So I guess people forget the cultural differences and try to work together as a team. If this were not a production for the Church, probably this would be a huge obstacle."
In addition to Brother Medel, two other performers Brother Gomez singled out for their excellence are Miguel Garcia who played Joseph and Sonya Ochoa who portrayed Elizabeth.
Means to an end
The strong showing of "El Salvador del Mundo" elicited feelings of pride from performers and audience alike. They live in a world where their native tongue, Spanish, is all but taboo to use in mixed company. For three shows over two days, though, sounds of Spanish reverberated in the Bountiful Regional Center.
However, Elder Franco cautioned, Spanish-language programs such as "El Salvador del Mundo" are more of a means to an end than an end unto themselves.
"Integration is very important," Elder Franco said. "I think there are a lot of people at this time enjoying that; perhaps that's to help the transition from Spanish to English. We need to make sure that even though they're doing this production in Spanish, at the end of the day we don't want to segregate. We don't want to create things that will divide."
Two performances of "El Salvador del Mundo" remain: Dec. 19 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. at Timpview High School in Provo. Tickets are not required for the matinee. Tickets for the evening performance may be obtained by contacting local leaders of LDS Spanish-speaking congregations; Spanish-speaking full-time missionaries are also distributing tickets.