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‘Christian Broadway’ big business across nationcomment (0)

May 3, 2007

The sprawling stage at the Millennium Theatre is 300 feet long, wrapping around both sides of the 2,000-seat theater.

The sets are gigantic, the lights brilliant, the music thunderous.

At any moment, dozens of actors and live animals might be swirling across the stage or up the aisles. Angels are often dangling from wires 50 feet overhead.

The theater, the larger of two operated near Strasburg, Pa., by Sight & Sound Theatres, specializes in large-scale Bible stories, such as Easter’s "Behold the Lamb" and the creation story "In the Beginning," which opened in March. The two sophisticated, computerized professional theaters mount multimillion-dollar spectacles seen by about 800,000 people annually who expect Broadway-quality productions.

The actors are talented, but they know that the Word of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ are the stars. That mind-set makes them part of a larger troupe — "Christian Broadway" actors nationwide who share the gospel year-round through pricey productions in state-of-the-art theaters.

"We sow the seed at Sight & Sound," theater founder Glenn Eshelman said. "We get so many people here you could not get to walk through a church door."

In 2008, Sight & Sound will open a theater in Branson, Mo. — this one with a Noah production. But Branson — the live entertainment capital of the world, according to the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce — is an area already familiar with the concept of Christian Broadway.

The 3,000-seat Mansion America Theatre goes head-to-head with the city’s multitude of large-scale acts with its production of "The Promise," which opened for the 2007 season April 6.

"The Promise" features 60 cast and crew who run a fast-paced musical production of the life of Christ. The first six minutes of the show fly from creation to the prophecies of Christ all the way to the nativity.

"The Promise" has run off and on for more than a decade in Branson, but it first debuted in Glen Rose, Texas, in 1989 in a 3,200-seat amphitheater that still hosts the show today. A third show runs in New York, and several others have run at various times over the years in other countries worldwide.

The large-scale biblical production is not a new concept in the United States — or the world. The passion play began in the 14th or 15th century, with the oldest-surviving one — Germany’s Oberammergau Passion Play — still being put on in grandiose form once every decade since 1634.

At its next performance — set for May through September of 2010 — more than 2,000 villagers will participate on stage, in the choir and in the orchestra in a covered amphitheatre that seats 4,720.

Union City, N.J., hosts the U.S.’ longest-running passion play, which has been staged since 1915. Eureka Springs, Ark., also hosts a long-running and popular outdoor production — "The Great Passion Play," which has been in operation since 1968 and marked its 7-millionth visitor in 2003. It kicked off its 2007 show season April 27.

"The reason it’s popular is because of its theme and the niche need it is meeting," said John McAteer, director of sales and marketing for "The Great Passion Play." "There are limited educational and entertainment things for Christian people to do."

The 80-member cast "brings the Bible to life right before your eyes," McAteer said, presenting the salvation message onstage in as vivid a manner as possible.

Eshelman believes theater is a natural way to spread the gospel, pointing out that Christ was a storyteller who often used props to illuminate His message.

"If it worked for Jesus, it can work for us," he said.

For more information, visit Sight & Sound’s Web site at www.sight-sound.com, The Promise’s Branson site at www.mansionamerica.com and The Great Passion Play’s site at www.greatpassionplay.com. (RNS, TAB)

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