STAGE REVIEW : 'Glory of Christmas' Serves Up Joy of the Season--Clumsily

At its most basic level, the Crystal Cathedral's "The Glory of Christmas" evades criticism. This elaborate but clumsy annual production is an evangelical entertainment for the faithful--the Greatest Story Ever Told filtered through a Greatest Show on Earth sensibility.

The latest offering, featuring a trove of special effects and the usual menagerie of barnyard animals, will satisfy those who come to feel both the joy of the season and the strength of religious conviction. Director Paul David Dunn gives a clear, linear telling of Joseph and Mary's being touched by God and that fateful night in the Bethlehem manger.

But anyone who looks closely may be distracted by the show's uneasy staging. Patches are resoundingly rough, from the aimless look of crowd scenes as actors search for their marks to the awkward approach in setting up the big solos, and the general tone is so thick that only children are likely to be unequivocally enchanted.

Then again, this is an event for kids as much as anyone, and you can almost forgive Dunn for making everything so sensational and preachy. Followers of the Crystal Cathedral certainly will be forgiving, even when the obvious is pushed into blatancy, which is often.

To signal the Immaculate Conception, Mary (played in alternating performances by Jonel Dayen Christensen, Debby Smith and Donal Carol White) all but rubs her tummy. And when we learn of Herod's anger over Jesus' birth, it's to the insidious laughter of Arthur C. (Buddy) Adler as Herod.

He makes his exit, that maniacal cackle trailing behind, as narrator Thurl Ravenscroft reminds us that Herod was a very bad man. Ravenscroft's rhapsodizing voice can get pretty heavy at times, even in a church not known for its subtlety.

As spectacle, "Glory" only disappoints in its lack of simplicity and grace. But how agile can you be when asked to lead camels, sheep, cows and baa-ing lambs to center stage? Children will gape at all the animal husbandry and bold costumes, and their parents may be transfixed every now and then as well.

Of course, don't expect much modesty; this isn't a high school pageant blessed by homespun restraint. The angels (rigged up by Peter Foy's "Flying by Foy" company) zoom in from smoke clouds, delivering benedictions over the audience, and heavenly spotlights (effects by Rick Helgason) bounce around the pews.

As usual, the Crystal Cathedral finds entertainment salvation in the boffo gesture, and, as usual, it is ironic that such extravagance is seen as the best way to tell this familiar and beautiful story.

There is piousness, though, in the handling of most of the songs, a lovely compilation of Christmas' best that serves as "Glory's" centerpiece. Musical director Johnnie Carl has, unfortunately, prerecorded the music; but the singing is live, with an accomplished cast providing pleasing renditions of these classics. Among the best are "O Holy Night," "What Child is This?" and "The First Noel."

'THE GLORY OF CHRISTMAS'

A Crystal Cathedral production. Directed and written by Paul David Dunn. With Jonel Dayen Christensen, Debby Smith, Donal Carol White, Robin Buck, Phillip Chaffin, Don Christensen, Ray McLeod, Arthur C. (Buddy) Adler, Thurl Ravenscroft, Henrietta Davis, Jose Gonzales, Michael McClanahan, Bob Carter, Dale Lucas, Fred Booher, Solon Goodson, Don Sheagley, Albert Zultz, Jon Eric Waterhouse, Alfonso Trozzi, Tony Williams, Kyle Brown, Phillip Seabolt, Shawn Wilson, John Allen and Todd Myers. Set by Charles Lisanby. Choreography by Dorie Lee Mattson. Musical direction by Johnnie Carl. Costumes by Richard Bostard. Plays nightly at 4:30, 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. through Dec. 30 at 12141 Lewis St., Garden Grove. Tickets: $14 to $25. (714) 971-4065.

For the Record Compiled by Kenneth Williams Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 29, 1989 Orange County Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Column 1 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction In Tuesday's review of the Crystal Cathedral's "Glory of Christmas" pageant, reviewer Mark Chalon Smith incorrectly used the term "Immaculate Conception" in referring to a segment that actually depicted the Virgin Birth of Jesus.
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