With Roman warriors rushing up the aisles on horseback, luminous angels traversing the air some 40 feet above our heads, the warm tones of the London and Seattle symphonies surging from an elaborate surround-sound system, and a 78-foot set encompassing the entire starry night sky, The Glory of Christmas is the queen mother of Christmas pageants—a far cry from the typical community affair. The emphasis here is not on reciting chunks of scripture but on making the story of Christ's birth something visual, aural, and spectacular—on creating an exotic, transporting, and magical piece.
Like many epic films and productions with casts totaling in the hundreds, The Glory of Christmas is mainly a show of entrances and exits—large, fast, and extravagant entrances and exits that become the most memorable parts of the experience. From director/producer Paul David Dunn's point of view, they must also be the most logistically complex: Herding a combination of Equity actors, community volunteers, trumpeters, camels, youngsters, and alpacas up and down a complex network of ramps is no small feat. Yet thanks to Dunn's careful blocking and meticulous rehearsal, these comings and goings en masse are swift and professional.
The trouble is, the scenes these elaborate entrances prepare us for are sometimes little more than a few lines of dialogue. The piece begins to feel more like it is simply checking off the main points of the story rather than delighting in them. While Dunn has made sure never to bore his audience or let moments lag, he also seems to have missed all opportunities to have actors do a bit of characterization, or relate to one another, or find ways to make key moments large enough to fill the space and dazzle the kids, yet poignant enough to interest adults.
What real emotion may be lacking in the melodramatic acting is partially recovered in the vocal performances, where a number of talented vocalists are showcased singing mostly traditional Christmas carols. As Mary, Erica Atchue has a big, beautiful musical-theatre voice that can both belt and exude grace in the upper registers. Bradley Baker, who portrays a shepherd, has a deep, classical voice and knows how to act, rather than simply sing, a song. Soloists Mandie Pinto, Nicky Chiriboga, and Kristy Babcock give standout performances as they sing praises to the newly born prince of peace.
While the songs provide a few brief moments for the audience to reflect on the meaning of the occasion, the production indeed emphasizes the glorious. Richard Bostard's studiously authentic costumes—from the lavish, opulent robes of King Herod to the woven garments of each last shepherd—are the perfect visual complement to the full, rich score, arranged by Johnnie Carl. Dorie Lee Mattson has complemented the production with her widely varied dance numbers—blending folk dances with ballet—which are precisely executed by her precociously talented corps of dancers.
As musical theatre, the piece may not be as engaging as one could imagine, yet as a live Christmas spectacle The Glory Of Christmas is a winning combination of high production values and aesthetic intelligence. Exploring the dramatic possibilities of this piece might, in the future, bring about an equally glorious yet also fresh and gratifying work.
"Glory of Christmas," presented by and at the Crystal Cathedral, 12141 Lewis St., Garden Grove. 4:30, 6:30 & 8:30 p.m., most nights. Nov. 24-Dec. 30. $20-30. (714) 544-5679.