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Russian Dollywood

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Let me begin by saying that I am not a churchgoer, and I generally regard organized religion with a sense of mild alarm. I set out for West End Assembly of God's "Glorious Christmas Nights" annual holiday extravaganza with some trepidation but keeping my mother's gentle advice in mind: "Sweetie, just go with an open mind and the Christmas spirit." OK, Mom. By the time I waded through the traffic backed up on Parham Road and actually made it into WEAG's parking lot, I was richly rewarded by the sight of a traffic cone blocking one of the prime parking spots, labeled "Baby Jesus Parking."

This year's theme, "Starlite '65," tells the story of the town of Bethlehem, Va., preparing to celebrate Christmas in 1965. Willie the kindly mailman, played by Lowell Qualls, navigates the audience through a bewildering cast of characters, like the rival Freeman and Wright families, who compete for the most gaudily decorated house, and the washed-up Rockette, Roxie Monroe (played by Maura Brigham), who with her ex-lover and manager Roger de Mille (Allen Brown) plans to turn Bethlehem upside down with a "Starry Christmas Nights" show on the huge scale of, well, "Glorious Christmas Nights" itself.

Setting the story near Richmond in the '60s means that it is filled with familiar references to Miller & Rhoads and VEPCO (what is now Dominion Power), which, among other names, blur the line between narrative and real life. Sweet or comic moments in the midst of many complex and populous scenes keep the show from being completely overwhelming. The two youngest children and the two surviving grandparents of the feuding Freemans and Wrights have fallen in love despite their families' differences, a la Romeo and Juliet. The song "If Only," performed by all four in interwoven duets, crystallizes the seasonally appropriate theme of love as a force that endures despite seemingly insurmountable challenges.

A truly hysterical scene in Roxie's "Starry Christmas Nights" centers on the Italian Father Guido and his choir of monks performing the "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's Messiah. Having taken a vow of silence, however, the monks perform the chorus by holding up cards on which, in gothic letters, the syllables of the chorus are inscribed, in time to recorded accompaniment. Ridiculous, yes, and sublime.

The whole story, of a town celebrating Christmas in ways that conspire to make the inhabitants forget about the true meaning of Christmas, ultimately acts as a device to frame WEAG's spectacular representation of the Nativity. Willie and Mr. Wright have, along with the rest of the town, just experienced a contrast between Roxie's mammoth "Starry Christmas Nights" -- cut short by a power outage — and the charming humbleness of the town's children performing a Christmas play in the church. They fall into a reverie imagining what the real Nativity must have been like, and we find that, as imagined by WEAG, it must have involved both flying and dancing angels, masses of "Witnesses of the Birth of Christ," a real camel and the Baby Jesus — the set-piece that ends every year's production.

As I sat there, somewhat dazed after the '60s medleys, children's choirs, tap-dancing Christmas trees, and then the Nativity, I found myself wishing for some time out in a field, under the stars, with just the baby and the camel. There is a kind of existential quiet that animals possess, and babies too before self-consciousness has taken hold and they begin questioning the nature of existence. In the midst of such intense sound and sparkle, the sight of two creatures simply being themselves wielded more power than perhaps even WEAG, with all its earnest exhortations on the true nature of Christmas, realized. Or perhaps that was part of their plan all along. After all, they gave the baby his own parking spot. S



"Glorious Christmas Nights" at the West End Assembly of God runs through Dec. 9, with 7:30 p.m. performances and matinees. Tickets are $18. 401 N. Parham Road. Call 754-0738 or visit www.gloriouschristmasnights.com.







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