Performances a staple in Nauvoo

NAUVOO, Ill. — Life in Nauvoo in the 1840s included a fair share of music, dancing and socializing. In that spirit, visitors to historic Nauvoo today take in daily musical performances put on by missionaries serving here.

For more than two decades, the performances have been a staple of the tourists' experience in Nauvoo, a delightful complement to the historic homes and structures and living history exhibitions that visitors enjoy while learning about life in this historic Mississippi River city that was headquarters to the Church from 1839 to 1846.

The performances, presented free, have long played to capacity audiences, and tickets are at such a premium that wise visitors obtain them from missionaries at the visitors center as soon as they arrive in Nauvoo, or better yet, call in advance. The toll-free number is 1-888-453-6434. Reserved tickets must be picked up by 2 p.m.; if not, they are redistributed on a stand-by bais.

During the busy season from Memorial Day through Labor Day, the shows are fully booked, especially during the middle of the summer. The three productions are the following:

  • “Nauvoo Adventure,” presented at the visitors center by a cast of young, college-age “performing missionaries.” It is presented at 3:30 and 6:30 p.m.
  • “Rendezvous in Old Nauvoo,” enacted by senior missionaries who serve during the day in other capacities in Nauvoo. It is a series of musical skits presented at the historic Cultural Hall, one of the visitor attractions. The show is presented at 7 and 8:15 p.m.; some of the young performing missionaries join the older cast members for the second show.
  • “Sunset at the Mississippi,” presented at the end of Parley Street near the landing where the saints made their westward exodus in 1846. It is a variety show, more informal than the other two, incorporating the talents of vocalists and fiddlers. It begins at dusk.

"All three shows focus on Nauvoo and what happened here or during the exodus from here," explained Noni Sorensen, who has directed productions in Nauvoo for the past 15 years with the assistance of her husband, Maynard.

Young performing missionaries are cast members in twice-daily performance of musical "Nauvoo Adventure."
Young performing missionaries are cast members in twice-daily performance of musical “Nauvoo Adventure.” Credit: Photo courtesy Nauvoo Restoration Inc.

"The 'Nauvoo Adventure' show is a chronological history of what happened, written with stories taken from journals and histories of people who lived here during the historic period of 1839 to 1846," she said. "The 'Rendezvous' is not true stories, but things that could have happened based on what we're told did happen here. The 'Sunset' show features the particular talents of the senior missionaries who happen to be here, with some numbers written to tell the story of the arrival and departure across the plains."

The genesis of the productions began in 1980, when prominent Latter-day Saint playwrights Ruth and Nathan Hale created some skits to present to Nauvoo visitors. In 1988, the Sorensens were called to enhance the existing show. She wrote some additional skits and music to tie them together. Then, noticing the theater in the visitors center, the Sorensen's conceived the idea of a show featuring young performing missionaries. The mechanism was set in place for yearly applications and auditions in Salt Lake City, with 15 performers being selected from 150 applicants. The "Sunset" show is a more recent innovation, started about four years ago.

"We've run approximately 1,400 performances of both "Rendezvous" and "Nauvoo Adventure," said Brother Sorensen, a gifted sculptor whose original assignment in Nauvoo was to do wood carvings. However, he ended up assisting his wife full time with the challenge of putting on the shows. "We do 30 productions a week with the three shows."

"Nauvoo Adventure" itself includes 25 original musical numbers. At first they were accompanied simply by a piano, but in later years, an orchestrated and recorded sound track has been produced.

The Sorensens have just been released from their calling, and the work of producing the shows has been turned over to Pat Davis, a veteran director whose past work has included Promised Valley Playhouse, an outdoor theater at Salt Lake City's Triad Center, and the founding of the Grand Theater at Salt Lake Community College's South Campus.

As a former member of the general Activities Committee of the Church, Sister Davis has been in Nauvoo before, the first time being when the Monument to Women was dedicated. Though she did not know it at the time, her great-great-grandfather was once a resident of the city.

"I feel a spiritual tie here," she said. "I feel it really strong just walking around in the mornings. It is here so thick you can cut it with a knife."

She said she hopes to refine the process of casting and staffing the shows, particularly "Rendezvous."

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