West End Assembly of God's annual production covers centuries of the secular and saintly, and crosses generations of humans and camels.by Brandon Reynolds
Apparently, all roads lead to the nativity scene. Each year, the West End Assembly of God's holiday extravaganza, "Glorious Christmas Nights," brings together more than 400 people -- singers, dancers, angels moving overhead courtesy of Flying by Foy and a live camel -- for what must be the largest theatrical production in the city. But whether we begin in a small Virginia town in 1965 or a North Pole besieged by DC comic-book villains, the orbit of the narrative, no matter how far from earth it is, will eventually bring us all to that moment at the end where we are gazing upon a living, whirling crA"che.
This is the 25th year of "Glorious Christmas Nights," and it is … singular. A blend of the secular and the saintly, the mildly wholesome and the faintly heretical, it's a production that takes a year of planning and execution, costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, attracts 24,000 people, and is an unbelievable stew of pop culture and mainstream Christianity. This year's production, "That Would Be a King," is a reprisal of the 2003 production, back by popular demand, but with added delights like a Cirque du Soleil sequence and a whole Miss America thing. (Yes.)
The story is like something Philip K. Dick would tell his kids over eggnog: Two angels, Ted (Keith Chadwick) and Randall (Powell Harrison), are commissioned on the night of Jesus' birth to escort the three wise men to yonder stable. So they consult a GPS-type thing (a smartly rendered screen in a gauzy cloud that I regretted only appeared once) and, because they mishear their instructions, teleport all across time trying to catch up to the New Testament. They go from 1903 London, where Cockney street urchins pick pockets, to Caesar's Palace, where a crew from Pulaski has arrived for an Elvis impersonator contest, to King Herod's temple on that first Christmas night, where the simmering Herod, surrounded by concubines, belts out a song that includes roaring into the audience "Kill the baby!" Then finally, yes, there's the clockwork of the nativity, where every show eventually finds itself.
Bob Laughlin, the church's music and fine arts pastor, is the executive producer and director of "Glorious Christmas Nights." He's been doing it for a quarter-century, choosing music that spans generations, and ensuring that we'll see herds of London children as well as a white-bearded Elvis impersonator. The orchestra, toiling in the shadows above the stage, executes the incredible variety of tunes conceived by Rob Klipp. The show is built around excess, and so it's inevitable that there would be room to trim -- there were seven Miss Americas judging "America's Got Talent," for example, when three would probably do.
But it's dedicated to spectacle, and in every show there's always a moment that gets you. This year it was the Cirque du Soleil sequence, a show-within-a-show called "Scrooge's Nightmare." Told entirely in pantomime, with the pseudo-trance music of those Las Vegas productions, this was a pageant of black-clad girls dancing and lurching like zombies around a terrified Scrooge while other girls whirled overhead on cables or hung from long red drapes and contorted themselves provocatively. It was eerie and sensual, made more so for being in a church.
The music and choreography culminates in that nativity, in which a real live baby, sometimes fussy, is the centerpiece of dozens of dancers, six flying angels, assembled choruses, and the obligatory camel -- the niece of the original camel. The birth of Jesus is much celebrated.
But then suddenly the reborn Jesus appears from behind a corner as the wise men are singing and the pastel peasants are dancing. It's a strange, "Where's Waldo?" moment. Jesus, unattended by zombie girls or pickpockets or hovering angels or concubines, seems a little lost on that busy stage. There is no fanfare to this Jesus, 33 years older than the baby version that got all that attention, and his attitude, supposed to be of serenity and peace, seems forlorn.
He wanders through the crowd and there are no heavenly hosts attending, and with his arms partly extended, he seems not to be inviting all the world to him so much as asking, "What about me?" The peasants regard him briefly, and he passes through the crowd of wise men. But none join him, save two urchins, who follow in his wake as he walks sullenly down the main aisle and out of the sanctuary. He's got a big return later. But I prefer the quiet exit.
Because in this characterization of Jesus the production makes, perhaps unintentionally, a more daring comment on not just modern Christianity but religion in general -- the goal of the religion lost in the spectacle of that religion, in centuries of reinterpreting that message or, say, applying it to the big commercial machine of the holidays. People are so busy talking about Jesus, singing about Jesus, dancing about Jesus, that they miss him in their midst. No wonder he looked sullen.
I reiterate that I doubt this effect was intentional; his humble entrance was probably intended to characterize modesty. On the other hand, in a show that offers a steady diet of flying girls, Elvises and the niece of a live camel, a bit of unappreciated modesty might be its most brilliant feature.
"Glorious Christmas Nights" runs through Dec. 14 at the West End Assembly of God, 401 N. Parham Road. Show times vary. Tickets are $18. Call 754-0738 or visit www.gloriouschrismasnights.com.