"It's a very different pageant from the one I performed in 28 years ago," said Richard Olsen, who has been connected with the Mormon Miracle Pageant in one way or another since its first performance in 1967.
Brother Olsen is playing General Mormon is this year's pageant, while several other people, including Helen and Morgan Dyreng and Douglas Barton, have also been involved with the production since its beginnings.
The pageant opened here July 6 to a crowd of about 16,000 people, according to president and general chairman Douglas Dyreng, an unexpectedly high turnout for a weeknight opening night. Attendance Friday, July 7, was more than 25,000, with another 20,000 attending on Saturday, July 8. By the time this season's numbers are calculated following performances July 11-15, it will mean that pageant attendance since that first performance in 1967 will be approaching 3 million people.
That is a far cry from the 2,000 who braved the wind and rain at the Sanpete County fairgrounds in 1967. Two years later the pageant was moved to Temple Hill, adjacent to the Manti Temple. Since then it has gained professional lighting, sound effects and other production elements that have greatly enhanced its quality.
Though the pageant has changed over the years, its theme is still based upon the plan of salvation and an explanation of gospel principles, Church history and the Book of Mormon. Otherwise, however, it is constantly changing in many ways.
Each year pageant production people plan for several changes. This year the pageant has about 100 new costumes - some for major characters, and some for the handcart and pioneer scenes. And there's also a new setting for several significant moments in the narrative, among them the jail scene that depicts the murder of the Prophet Joseph and his brother, Hyrum.
There also is a large turnover of cast members every year, which means much fine tuning through numerous rehearsals. This year's performers include Church members from Utah, New York, Oregon and Michigan. Greg Franson, 16, of the Clarkston Ward, Grand Blanc Michigan Stake, plays the role of a Nephite warrior. His sister, Chelsea, 15, is a dancer in the production.
While most of the production and performing people live nearby, some travel long distances. Director Ron Hall travels nightly from Salt Lake City, a distance of about 110 miles, for rehearsals and performances.
"We continue to view the pageant as an important missionary tool, but even more significantly as a rich spiritual experience for all those who attend," concluded Brother Dyreng.