"Production" is a big word with lots of meaning for several hundred Latter-day Saints in northern Utah. They are members of the North Davis and South Davis Special Needs Mutual organizations, and their annual productions are a chance for them to shine.
"Each one of these individuals is a star," said Dora Wersland, secretary of the South Davis women's group, which is headed by Jeanette Forrey. Bry Davis is president of the Young Men's segment.
"This is my fourth production, and it's an incredible experience for me," Wersland said. "These people have no inhibitions. They have a spirit you can feel. They're filled with unconditional love."
"Youth" of all ages make up the special mutual programs, consisting of individuals whose conditions bar them from participation in the regular Young Women, Young Men or Scouting programs of the church. The special mutuals adapt regular church youth programs to meet the needs of those whose lives are limited by mental, emotional or physical disabilities.
But when production is in preparation, there's no such thing as a handicap.
"Every one of them has a part and gets to be seen," said Nolan Evans, who heads the men's program in the North Davis Mutual. "They love it."
Evans collaborated with Tom and Debbie Housely to create this year's script. Holly Rasband is the Young Women's president for the north area.
"We have the best leaders in the world," Evans said — a boast that might be challenged by those who are certain the south program has the world's best.
Over the past two decades of productions, both units have had to look for larger venues to accommodate growing audiences. The south group stages its production in the Bountiful/Woods Cross Regional Center, while the north performers hold forth in Layton High School.
"We get a very good response," Evans said.
Many of the participants who are physically disabled take part in wheelchairs, wagons — whatever it takes to get them onto the stage and through their parts. That requires scores of volunteers, such as Ali K. Richins, a Bonneville High School student whose job this year is to power the "rickshaw" that allows Mikael Varley to have his moment in the spotlight in the North Davis production. Ali's mother, Pamela Richins, is the pianist for the production, aided by Richard Heath on drums.
Some volunteer on a grand scale. David Brietenbecker, a Bountiful businessman, has offered his decorating expertise to the South Davis Mutual for several years, spending hours and involving his employees in creating, moving, setting up and dismantling sets to match the scripts.
At the north end, Phil Wheelwright provides the same kind of yeoman's service as a volunteer. For "twenty-something years" he has done the sound work for the North Davis production. At a recent Thursday rehearsal, he was counting down to the end.
"Any changes they make, it'll have to be tonight," he warned. Recording speeches for actors who can't always articulate very well is an important task. The actors themselves enthusiastically provide the gestures.
"We've never been turned down by anyone," said Kimball Jacobs, who co-wrote this year's script for the south unit, along with John Kraczek and Karen Powell. With oodles of help, they head the production effort.
"(Volunteers) add to the spirit year to year," Jacobs said.
Barbie Elliott, who plays the piano and records the music for the production, has a special affinity for the participants in this special show. She herself is blind.
Work on the production at both ends of the county begins early. In January, the participants start learning group songs. Then they divide into smaller groups to learn their skits and dances.
"When the leaders announce that production is going to begin, they stand up and clap," Wersland said. "They can't wait."
During a North Davis rehearsal at a Clearfield meetinghouse, nearly every room was rocking with song and dance, from the Hawaiian hula being performed by enthusiastic dancers such as Julia Adams and Celesti Nielsen to sombrero-sporting Michael Mather, who was belting out the "Spanish Flea." In a hallway, volunteers Lila Albrechtsen and Pat Gulbranson were absorbed in the time-consuming task of getting costumes just right. An impatient Jason Walters, being fitted by Gulbranson in a bright costume, wriggled and yearned to get back where the action was.
As the moment of truth inches up on them, Evans admitted that they're usually glad when it's over.
"But when you see the smiles on all those faces," he said, "every minute is worthwhile."
If you go ...
NORTH DAVIS SPECIAL NEEDS MUTUAL PRODUCTION
When: Today and Friday, 7 p.m.
Where: Layton High School auditorium, 440 Lancer Lane
Title: Around the World in Eighty Minutes: Up, Up and Away!
Cast: 140 special-needs participants
Admission: Free (donations welcome)
SOUTH DAVIS SPECIAL NEEDS MUTUAL PRODUCTION
When: April 17 and 18, 7 p.m.
Where: Bountiful/Woods Cross Regional Center, 835 N. 400 East, North Salt Lake (just south of I-15 2600 South exit on frontage road)
Title: Sounds Great: The Miracle of Hearing
Cast: Approximately 100 special-needs participants