On Yom Kippur, Robin Buck joined a choir to sing Jewish prayers at the Leo Beck Temple in Los Angeles. Starting tonight, he plays Joseph among camels, wolves and goats in the unstintingly literal Nativity pageant offered by the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove.
Mostly, "The Glory of Christmas" is performed by the faithful, volunteering members of the Reformed Church in America, whose founding pastor is TV evangelist Robert H. Schuller.
To them, spiritual inspiration is the point of this Cecil B. DeMille-type production that fills the 12-story, 3,000-seat glass church near the Garden Grove Freeway. But Buck, a 30-year-old baritone with a music degree, is a hired free-lancer who views the pageant as broadly dramatic spectacle. "There is a spiritual side to it," he said, pushing the folds of his Bedouin headdress out of his eyes at a recent rehearsal. "But it's entertainment. It tells a story with theatrical means."
Indeed, it does, with ticket prices at $14 and $18. For that, you get an hourlong arrangement of live and recorded song, dialogue, dancing and tableaux vivants. The setting is a chamber whose architectural style could easily be called celestial gigantism, on a stage so vast its boundaries skirt one's peripheral vision.
In a decade that has brought nascent fundamentalism and a Liberty Weekend, this big-top treatment of Christ's birth and first days should not really be a surprise. But it's hard not to be impressed: Roman soldiers trot out on horses; the three Wise Men arrive on camels, bejeweled like so many biblical Liberaces; a host of blond angels in white gowns slide about on wires, like contestants in an aerial beauty pageant.
Mary and Joseph sing. Their neighbors dance. Spotlights make the right people shine at all the right moments.
Exactly how the show impresses is personal, of course. Some viewers will find religious validation in all this extroverted detail. Others may long for less simplistic uses of the imagination to give form to faith. This viewer worried that the booming amplification would start a stampede. The cathedral's sixth production of "The Glory of Christmas" features more than 35 animals, including two lions that lounge at Herod's feet. No elephants, though. Even the Crystal Cathedral seems to have limits.
"The animals are rented from professional trainers who accompany them in costume during the pageant," said Kathy Black, a church spokeswoman. "We've never had a problem with animals getting loose or hurting someone in any of our productions. . . . The trainers keep them well-fed and calm."
There are two casts: 200 volunteer performers in each and a few professionals. They'll give a total of 82 performances through Dec. 20.
The Crystal Cathedral, which presents a similar type of pageant to tell the Easter story, has a 10,000-member congregation. It also is the setting for Schuller's nationally televised "Hour of Power," on which he evangelizes for his effusive mix of Christian doctrine and what he calls possibility thinking.
The narration for "The Glory of Christmas," produced at $800,000, is written, produced and directed by Schuller's son-in-law, Paul David Dunn, whom the church describes as a biblical scholar and co-author with Schuller of "The Possibility Thinker's Bible."
Dunn overlooked few biblical possibilities for this show, and Black said the hundreds of pieces tend to fall miraculously into place.
But Jose Gonzales, 38, who plays King Balthasar, has a different perspective. The bearded church member from Anaheim fell off one of the camels during a rehearsal. The animal had lurched forward while bending down to let Gonzales dismount. A scene of royal indignity ensued.
"I wasn't hurt, and I got back on," he said. "This is hard work," he added, sweat visible above his gilded collar. "People think you just put on a king costume and get on a camel, but it isn't like that. I learned how to ride a camel from a trainer. It takes lots of balance."
Playing Joseph isn't as much of a physical challenge, said Buck, although he did have to learn how to drive a donkey that carries Mary, played by JoNel Dayen, 28, a singer from Los Alamitos.
Buck, reared a Protestant, said he always learns something from taking part in celebrations of the season, a time when even secular entertainments hold a message. "Last year I was Scrooge in 'A Christmas Carol,' " he said. "The role of Joseph is more serious, but there is a theme of love and hope that is common to both of them."
The Glory of Christmas runs nightly through Dec. 20 at the church, 12141 Lewis St., Garden Grove. (There will be no show on Monday). Performances are at 4:30, 6:30 and 8:30 p.m.. For information, call (714) 54-GLORY.