About three or four years ago, when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Conference Center was under construction, Charles ("Chuck") Metten — former artistic director at Promised Valley Playhouse — noted that the new facility was designed to be large enough to accommodate a fully staged indoor version of the Hill Cummorah Pageant.

The LDS Church's spectacular new production, "Light of the World: A Celebration of Life," may not take up an entire mountainside, but it is nonetheless an epic-scale undertaking.

In addition to the cast of more than 800 — all volunteers — there are as many, or more, busy behind the scenes, working on special effects, costumes, scenery and other aspects of the production.

The 90-minute show will touch on the lives and contributions of several former Olympic medalists, and well-known sports historian Bud Greenspan has contributed his expertise to the project.

Co-director Randy Boothe said last week that he and his writers met Greenspan in his office in New York, and he provided quite a bit of useful material for the script. His narrator will also provide the production's voice-over narration for those segments.

Patrons attending any of the 10 performances, scheduled Feb. 7-23, won't recognize the building's 120-foot-wide stage. The pipe organ and seating for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir have been moved out. In their place is a steeply raked, dome-shaped stage, which is thrust out into the auditorium. Lighting effects will make it appear to be the top of a giant world globe.

Boothe, who's directed many productions at Brigham Young University and Promised Valley Playhouse, noted during a recent tour prior to a "sneak preview" for LDS Church general authorities that "this particular setting is unique in that when you get a cast of 600 singers and dancers on stage at once, you constantly have the challenge of being sure that the audience — all 21,000 — can see them."

But Boothe has walked around the entire auditorium, including the top row of the upper level, and is certain that no one in the audience will miss anything. The dome's steep, curved incline is a two-edged situation. "It's every choreographer's dream, in terms of the audience being able to see virtually every one of the dancers and performers. But it's also a nightmare to actually get them dancing and moving."

As we trekked uphill to the crest of the dome, Boothe asked, "Do you have your hiking boots on?" And he was right. Shoes with some built-in traction were necessary to walk up the fairly sharp rise.

"The performers have done a magnificent job," Boothe said. "The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, nearly 340 strong, will also perform live at every performance. Last night (during a rehearsal) they marched in here, and the women have beautiful, long dresses. 'How are they doing that?' I wondered. I thought they would come tottering down, but they didn't."

Boothe said the choreography is being handled by a team of a half-dozen local choreographers — all of whom bring their own areas of expertise: Ed Austin is coordinating the colorful, international folk dancers, representing cultures from around the world. Rebecca Wright Phillips, who is now on the dance faculty at BYU, is choreographing the epic pioneer dances. Pat Debenham, who has supervised BYU's Young Dancemakers and the Dance Company, is also involved with this production.

Janet Swenson, longtime costume designer at BYU, and her staff have been designing and sewing costumes for the production, including all new gowns and outfits for members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The cast will also include the International Children's Choir and several BYU performing groups.

And Boothe promises some spectacular special effects. For example, some of the performers will fly down from the ceiling, portraying colorful butterflies — soaring 70 feet above the stage in the "Discovery" segment, which focuses on children discovering their place in the world.

John Featherstone, co-owner of Chicago-based Lightswitch, is the lighting designer for the show. The firm's credits range from Universal Studios' "Islands of Adventure" light parade in Orlando to the "Fremont Street Experience" in Las Vegas to several shows and displays at Walt Disney World to a long list of rock star tours — and the nightly exterior lighting of the Empire State Building.

Featherstone noted, just prior to a full dress rehearsal on Thursday night, that the Conference Center was a unique challenge for his design team. While utilizing the building's existing lighting, he also had to bring in more high-powered lights in order to illuminate the huge stage and to create some unusual special effects.

"There are some similarities between this and the Olympics' opening and closing ceremonies," he said. "But while the ceremonies are looking for the 'Wow!' factor — not unlike a big fireworks display — here we're telling a story."

"(Featherstone) has really captured the essence of what we want to do with the show," said Boothe. "The show and the message are 'Light of the World,' and, man, has he got some light to shed on this production!"

The show has been described as "a light-and-sound spectacular," and there will be plenty of both. "This entire stage becomes a canvas for the performers," he said.

Also, there will be three giant projection screens on stage — two of them floor-to-ceiling curtains of white Chinese silk, which will come cascading down like a waterfall.

Boothe said when the production was first taking shape nearly three and one-half years ago, LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley said that for many years the church had been warmly received by foreign countries around the world, and he saw this production as "our opportunity to welcome the world here — that we can reciprocate the kindness that's been shown to us in their countries."

A storyline running through the production touches on individual anecdotes about previous Olympic medalists. Greenspan's company also provided some of the film clips for these "moments of Olympic glory." "These are Olympians who have gone on to make a difference in the communities where they live," said Boothe, "including Utah's own Alma Richards of Parowan. We get to know some of these stories, and we have an opportunity to get an inside look at their values and their winning spirit.

"They show that we all have a light within us, and when we follow that light, life is good. This show is a marriage of Olympics and Olympic values, and Utah's history and culture."

Many individuals and small groups from the production itself — some performing on exotic instruments — will provide entertainment in the Conference Center's foyers beginning 90 minutes prior to curtain. Others will also entertain patrons as they're being seated — performing and singing in the aisles.

Boothe said the performance itself should run 85 to 90 minutes, with no intermission. It's geared to end about 8:30 p.m., giving audiences time to catch shuttle buses back to the various park-and-ride lots before events on the nearby Medals Plaza conclude.

He also indicated that "Light of the World" will likely be released later on a videotape.


E-mail: ivan@desnews.com