The Hill Cumorah Pageant, the oldest and largest of America's outdoor dramas, rolled up its invisible curtain July 8 and unfolded on Hill Cumorah to an opening-night audience of about 9,000. The annual pageant ran July 8-9 and 12-16.
The 600 cast members came from nearly every state in the union and Canada. "Proud to be crowd" was the axiom director Jerry Argetsinger used, because there were no "stars" in the pageant, just committed cast members.At dusk, the quiet of Hill Cumorah's hillside was broken when the strains of a processional march began and the cast moved swiftly through the audience in a march reminiscent of medieval drama.
It was a colorful sight, with prophets, priests and kings dressed in exotic Meso-American-style costumes. The procession included believers and unbelievers, Lamanite dancers, warriors wielding swords and battle axes, members of wicked King Noah's court, head-dresses of deer antlers, and gleaming brass shields and helmets.
There was a gasp from the audience when all 600 reached the great seven-tier stage (half the size of a football field), stood with their backs to the audience and in one dramatic moment turned in unison to a music cue and faced the crowd. The pageant had made its first dramatic statement, and the excitement mounted as the drama unfolded.
State-of-the-art theatrical productions with breathtaking visual special effects are no surprise at the Kennedy Center or Radio City Music Hall, but that such a production could be produced on a hillside two miles from the nearest village in upstate New York is surprising to many of those who come, as well as the media. The message, however, is never lost in the spectacle: that nations endure when they obey the laws of God.
The New York Times said of the production: "A pageant performed with the spirit of a George Lucas techno-dazzler and the scope of a Cecil B. DeMille epic."
The pageant receives a great deal of media attention. Numerous stories have appeared in the local newspapers, and mention has been given in the travel sections of many of the major publications, including the Boston Globe, New York Daily News, U.S. News and World Report and others. A Syracuse, N.Y., affiliate of NBC spent a day and a half filming during rehearsals. A cameraman climbed up the 50-foot light tower in order to get a good shot of one of the scenes.
A reporter from the Philadelphia Enquirer made a three-day trip to the pageant to tell the story of a Philadelphia family's participation in the pageant as a background to a story about the Church. When a reporter from the Rochester-based Democrat and Chronicle wrote a story about the Hill Cumorah Pageant titled, "Pocketful of Miracles Help Pageant," telling about the large and small miracles that occur at the pageant, an editorial meeting was called in order to discuss whether the word "miracle" should appear in the story. The disputed word remained in the text, and the reporter told of some of the miracles that do occur.
Local folks around Hill Cumorah say, "It never rains on the Hill Cumorah Pageant." In reality, it has been rained out twice in its 57 years. One of the "miracle" stories the Democrat and Chronicle reporter told about included these words: "A miracle! In 1992 rain began to fall steadily as the pageant began scene four, the voyage to ancient America. With Nephi tied to a ship's mast, the special effects crew engulfed the stage in a raging storm – augmented by rain from the skies. But when the voice of the Lord on the pre-recorded script called for the staged storm to stop, the real thing stopped, too."
Brother Argetsinger said: "The real miracle of the pageant is the powerful effect the appearance of the descending resurrected Christ has, not only on the audience, but on the cast on stage. Many weep. To the little children who are cradled in his arms on stage, it seems a real experience. We encourage the cast to live the experience, to get to know Him through being in the pageant. As they do this, the pageant becomes an incredibly spiritual experience."
"I'm a Lamanite frontline battleman in the pageant," said 19-year-old Douglas Wright of the Anaheim (Calif.) 10th Ward. "I am supposed to be an unbeliever, but my feelings are just the opposite. I have never had a stronger testimony of the reality of Christ. It is an awesome experience to be here."
"The effect of the descending Christ on the audience is powerful," said Troy Hall, executive producer. "Some non-members are brought to tears. It leaves no question in their minds as to whether we are Christian or not."
The cast lingers with the audience and in a non-threatening, low-key way offers copies of the Book of Mormon. Adam Hoyt of the Grapevine (Texas) Ward said, "I'm going on a mission right away, and what a thrill it has been for me to be able to testify of the Book of Mormon here."
The atmosphere at the pageant is highly charged spiritually. The cast is challenged to read the entire Book of Mormon while here. They can be seen poring over it lying on the grass, at lunch, and waiting for their cues.
The Democrat and Chronicle said: "Staging the Mormon Pageant on this holy site, with the statue of Moroni glittering atop the hill, roughly equals staging Oberammergau at Lourdes, except that this show has a distinctly American-style flash and grandeur."