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IN THE WINGS

A Sacred Trust

Cast, Crew Keep 'Glory of Easter' Going Strong After 15 Seasons

April 10, 1998|ZAN DUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In Garden Grove, Jesus wears hair extensions, serves Sahara brand pita bread at the Last Supper, and struggles to keep the Crucifixion fresh after having been nailed more than 100 times.

"It only gets harder," said actor Bodie Newcomb, a.k.a. the Son of God.

Apologies to the faithful, but Hollywood and the Holy Land marry every spring for the Crystal Cathedral's elaborate "The Glory of Easter," concluding its 15th year with shows tonight and Saturday. And while millennium-bound biblical scholars continue to debate the greatest story ever told, "Glory's" 750-member cast and crew have it honed to a science.

"All cast members, all cast members," stage manager Sonja Wagner intoned like a flight attendant before Wednesday's reenactment. "Please preset your props immediately and go to Room 110 for notes and devotions."

Among backstage revelations observed the other night:

* The 12-story glass cathedral may have 2,650 seats (most, as much as $30 a pop, sold every night) and a massive stage-cum-altar, but it's no theater and has no real backstage.

Instead, Jews, Romans and disciples--plus three llamas, two peacocks, five horses, four goats, three sheep, a lamb, an old burro and a Bengal tiger--penetrate the limelight from behind curtained carpeted areas flanking the audience.

To get there, actors traipse upstairs, outside and back inside from a basement warren, where they grab props, warm up for Herod's harem dance, finish homework and change into costume. Sheldon Womack, 9, who plays a Jerusalem villager, peered from beneath a head shroud, ubiquitous circa 2000 BC, to search out M&Ms in the vending machine.

"I'm a hosanna child," Sheldon said.

Nearby, Pontius Pilate rode the elevator, and Christ (who doesn't share his dressing room) strapped on a concealed mike.

"Glory" veteran Newcomb, one of a dozen paid Equity actors in the mostly volunteer cast, recently played a cop in "L.A. Confidential."

"I also did a spot on [the series] 'Silk Stalkings' two weeks ago," he said, adjusting his loincloth.

* The show's livestock get exposure too. Sara, who starred as Pilate's pet Bengal for years, just wrapped "Dr. Doolittle" with Eddie Murphy, a cathedral spokeswoman said. Shea is the 250-pound Bengal-Siberian mix who replaced her.

Waiting for her entrance, Shea rolled onto her back for trainer Otto Kendall. Kendall, in costume and equipped with meat treats, controls the leashed cat's 12-minute performance.

"Oh, let's see the big belly, oh yeah, that's a good girl," the burly Kendall baby-talked. And yes, all God's creatures poop onstage. Animal handlers, also garbed in ancient attire, fix that with primitive dustpans and brooms.

* More sophisticated equipment is required to fly the six angels, each of whom steps into a girdle-like leather harness before slipping on a diaphanous white gown. Strategically placed slits allow them to hook a thin cable, able to hoist 500 pounds apiece, to each hip.

Once dressed and attached, the angels are elevated a few feet. Then they hover vertically in their secluded balcony nook before taking off over the audience as an actor cries, "Look! The tomb is open!"

Kanise Persons, 18, has had to learn to trust the guys who control her ascent with a mechanized pulley system, but she said flying rocks: "You get to see everyone's faces."

Even without such lofty roles, most "Glory" participants like the job. Many are veterans, and each year's production is like a family reunion, they say. It's also about spreading God's message to the masses--who, before crowding the cathedral's late-hours gift store, leave the building visibly moved by what they've seen, said Laura Mills, one of 15 stage managers.

"Some people walk out crying. It's so nice to see."

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