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A grand display of Mormon faith

Each summer, hundreds of volunteers tell the church's story onstage, in pageant form

July 17, 2011|Robin Abcarian

The pageant is an enormous logistical undertaking with a short lead time. After applying online between the previous August and November, selected participants arrive in Palmyra on a summer Friday. They are cast based on appearance alone, since the soundtrack is prerecorded by professional actors with singing by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

After a week of rehearsal, the show opens. It was to close Saturday after seven performances.

The stage is set into the hillside -- the hill is called Cumorah -- exactly where Smith claimed to have found the metal tablets written in what he called "reformed Egyptian" in the 1820s that he translated into the Book of Mormon and used to found the faith.

"We believe it's an ancient book of scriptures that God spoke to prophets in ancient America just like he did in the Bible in the Holy Land. God used Joseph Smith as his frontman to make that happen," said Hanson, the artistic director.

After the pageant ended at 10:30 p.m., Helen Newton, an ophthalmologist from Bloomfield, Conn., waited for a hotel shuttle with some friends.

Newton, 56, who is African American, was aware of the church's checkered racial history when she converted from Catholicism 15 years ago. The Mormon Church did not allow black men to be ordained as priests until 1978.

"I had heard about polygamy, so when I went to church I was checking out all the family units," Newton said. "I studied a lot and prayed about it. And the answer I got was that the author of the New Testament and the Old Testament was the same author as the Book of Mormon."

She'd been wanting to see the pageant for years, and the spectacle did not disappoint. But, Newton said: "I tried not to let the special effects wow me more than the message."

robin.abcarian@latimes.com

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