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A musical celebration of light, life

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It is late afternoon on a Saturday, and part of the immense cast of "Light of the World" is just completing its daylong rehearsal in the Conference Center.

"What a beautiful show," exclaims co-director Randy Boothe. "You're starting to get the breadth, the feel." He admonishes the multitude of actors, singers and dancers to try hard to prepare themselves for the tasks of the coming days; to read their scriptures, to pray.

Such is the spiritual consciousness that has pervaded this production from its inception and continues to influence it as it approaches opening night Feb. 7 as the Church's major theatrical offering for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Tickets are sold out for the seven evening and three matinee performances through Feb. 23. However, there are possibilities for stand-by seating.

"Our charge has been to utilize the talents of inspired writers, directors, composers, designers and performers to create a work that will fill this magnificent hall with spiritual energy and beauty," said associate director Janielle Christensen, "and bring to the world perhaps the most important message they will ever hear: that Jesus Christ is the light of the world and that His light can be found in each of us."

Sub-titled "A Celebration of Life," the production's immense scope is immediately apparent as one enters the Conference Center auditorium. In the place of the familiar rostrum is a huge, dome-shaped stage, 130 feet wide and 100 feet deep. The immediate effect is of watching the performance take place on a hillside. But on a deeper level, it is designed to convey the symbolism of relationships between people, the earth and heaven.

"I don't think there's a single [stage] production in the Church that has ever used as many people and offered as many opportunities for members and friends of the Church to bring their best ideas together," Brother Boothe said.

"We have close to 1,000 cast members that have been rehearsing since September," he noted. Included among them are the Tabernacle Choir, the International Children's Choir of Utah, and several BYU performing groups such as Young Ambassadors, Living Legends, Folk Dancers, Dancer's Company and BYU Children's Dance. In addition, many local residents, including families, appear in the ethnic dress of their ancestors, lending a global character to the show.

"We have hundreds and hundreds of technicians, prop people, seamstresses, costume designers," he said. "And I think the most exciting opportunity with this production is that, for the most part, the work is being done by volunteers."

For example, costume designer Janet Swenson has created more than a thousand costumes, working in a volunteer role "because she loves the Lord, she loves the members of the Church and friends worldwide and really wants to do something for the Kingdom," he said. "And we find that in every arena: choreographers, dancers, singers, composers."

For example, the team of five award-winning composers, who have chosen to work anonymously, created the musical score, working for months in one another's home studios.

"That kind of collaboration just doesn't happen in very many settings in today's theater," Brother Boothe said. "What a thrill to be a part of it and, of course, we've always known the old adage that many minds are better than one. In getting all these people together, we have discovered some wonderfully exciting theatrical moments, musical moments, choreographic moments. Eight or nine choreographers are working on this mammoth production, all of them talking with one another, running up to the top of the balcony, which is no small effort in a place like this, so they can take some notes and come back down and share their observations with whomever is in charge of a particular number."

A production of this scale does not come together in a few months. "And this one began in the fall of 1997, right after we finished the Pioneer Sesquicentennial production in Cougar Stadium [at BYU]."

Thus, it was already in development when construction of the Conference Center began. "The center, of course, was designed with wonderful events like this in mind," Brother Boothe said, "but there were slight adjustments we were able to make even while they were pouring cement that have prepared us for this day. Some of the incredible possibilities that exist in this facility, to really move people visually and aurally and spiritually are very exciting. I don't know of any other theatrical space in the world that's this size but yet because of the architectural design has such an incredible capacity to reach out and touch you."

Indeed, some of the special effects planned for "Light of the World" include cast members flying through the air, suspended from rigs that allow pendulum motion of up to 360 degrees and vertical motion of 70 feet. Video projections of the universe, computer controlled lighting and sound pre-recorded by the Orchestra at Temple Square are also included.

For veteran actor Al Harrington, one of the principal cast members, the message sets this production apart from others in which he has been involved. Best known for his role in the 1960s television series "Hawaii Five-O," Brother Harrington said it feels liberating for him to be involved in Church productions because "it's OK to deliver the message. You're not worried about subtleties of communication; you just let it out and hope the Spirit carries the message to the audience."

He said the music contains an element "that carries something that's intangible, that is aesthetic, that is spiritual." His voice breaking, he said, "Sometimes I sit here and watch the rehearsals and I am touched, especially when the kids come on."

Brother Harrington plays the part of Tom Trueblood, a university professor who advises a young Alma Richards to find his true path in life by returning to school, where he becomes an athlete who eventually distinguishes himself in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. "I try to bring to the character the authority of education," he said, "conveying to Alma to go back and structure his education a little bit, because sometimes if you lack structure it takes a long time to bring it all together."

Much of the story is told through the eyes of Brother Richards, a Latter-day Saint from Parowan, Utah, harkening back to his Mormon pioneer heritage, depicting among other things the gripping 1856 rescue of the handcart company that suffered from hunger and exposure while en route to the Salt Lake Valley.

"I find him to be a wonderful character," said Dallyn Vail Bayles, a BYU student who portrays Brother Richards. "I relate to him. I'm from Green River, Utah. He grew up in a small town; I grew up in a small town. I felt the same way he did sometimes, wanting to get out into the world, find my place, develop my talents and do the things I wanted to do. But it's funny how you find out just how blessed you are, the things you learn, where you're supposed to be, and you find your path from there."

It's such a consciousness that Brother Boothe hopes is conveyed to audiences: an awareness of what is important in life. "And when they leave, I hope they're going to feel a sense of joy and gratitude for the privilege of coming to this earth and the opportunity to share their lives with others and to have their pathway lit by the light of others with whom they associate and rub shoulders. And just be grateful that life is as good as it is. This production really is a celebration of life."

E-mail: rscott@desnews.com