KINGSTON TWP. – A glance at the program for the 19th annual performance of The Gift might lead one to believe it's a typical Christmas play about the birth of Jesus Christ.
But the best way to describe it might be a Broadway musical outdoors, according to the Rev. Dan Miller, pastor of Back Mountain Harvest Assembly.
A few thousand people packed into bleachers and nestled together on hay bales in a field next to the church, high on a hill in Trucksville, on a cold but otherwise mild Friday night for the first two performances of The Gift – a musical drama about salvation focusing on the birth of Christ.
From well-rehearsed actors in detailed costumes and a set that rivals those seen on some Broadway stages to professional lights, sound and pyrotechnics, The Gift is far from your typical church production.
And the growth of the show from its beginnings 19 years ago is a good indication of how impressive it truly is.
Myself and a former board member got together 13 days before Christmas and asked ourselves what we could do for the community. We came up with this idea. It was sort of thrown together, but the congregation really got behind it, Miller said in an interview a few hours before the 6 p.m. show.
Back then, the congregation totaled about 50 or 60 members and each one of them was involved.
Now, we dress 120 actors in costumes and have another 50 to 75 working behind the scenes as animal handlers, lighting people, sound people, props, people feeding the actors between shows. It take 200-plus people to make this happen, Miller said.
And audience numbers totaling 13,000 to 14,000 in good-weather years (8,000 to 9.000 in cold weather years) for five shows in a weekend is indicative of the show's appeal and popularity. The bleachers can seat about 2,500 and hay bales can accommodate on the ground can accommodate another 1,500, Miller said.
It's magnificent, Shirley Malta, of Wilkes-Barre, said of her reason for attending this year's performance Friday night. She saw the show last year and convinced her sister, Sandy Patton, also of Wilkes-Barre, to join her this year.
My sister said I had to come. She was very impressed with it, Patton said before the performance.
Susan Lupole, of Hanover Township, said she and her sister, Mary Wesstrom, of Wilkes-Barre Township, love coming every year. It's amazing, it just makes Christmas.
Wesstrom agreed. With all the commercialism, it makes Christmas more real.
Mark Antinnes, of Centermoreland, near Tunkhannock, said he and his wife, Michelle, attended Friday for the first time with their three sons aged 7, 5 and 2, because we felt we needed some spiritual uplifting after the day's events.
Miller touched on those events after welcoming the audience prior to the start of the show.
There's a group of people mourning right now with grief we can't fathom, Miller said, referring to the families of 20 children and six adults who were killed in a mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school earlier in the day.
Miller led the audience in prayer for the murder victims and their families and loved ones. He prayed that they might find peace and that God could somehow bring good out of evil and wickedness.
Miller said the message of The Gift is what's important and it's why the church presents the musical to the community for free each year, even though it costs about $40,000 to $50,000 to produce.
Miller recalled the reaction of a 6- or 7-year-old boy who watched the show seated on a front-row hay bale. He's standing on a hay bale, jumping up and down. He says, ‘Mommy, mommy, now I know what it's all about!' That picture is priceless in my mind. It was so profound, Miller said.
You have your presents, decorations. But the real meaning of this is Christ. … God gave us The Gift of eternal life and we just want to share it with the community, he said.
What: The Gift – a musical drama
When: 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. tonight and 6 p.m. Sunday
Where: Back Mountain Harvest Assembly, 340 Carverton Road, Trucksville
Cost: Free, but donations accepted. Free cookies and hot chocolate after the show. Youth group sells hot chocolate before the show.
Learn more: www.bmha.org or search Facebook.
Some facts about the history of Back Mountain Harvest Assembly's production of The Gift.
• About 50 to 60 congregants act in and produce the show
• Seating for about 100 on hay bales
• Two weekend performances
• Cost: minimal
• Animals include two goats, two sheep
• More than 200 congregants work on the production
• Seating for 2,500 in bleachers and 1,500 on hay bales
• Five weekend performances
• Cost: $40,000 to $50,000
• Animals include two camels, three horses, one donkey, one emu, four or five goats and three or four sheep