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N.Y. family experiences unique theater through the Hill Cumorah Pageant

Published: Wednesday, July 29 2015 6:34 a.m. MDT

Erik and Emily Orton pose for a photo in their costumes for the Hill Cumorah Pageant. They brought their five children, including a daughter with Down syndrome, to Palmyra to participate in the pageant. (Darren Mathews) Erik and Emily Orton pose for a photo in their costumes for the Hill Cumorah Pageant. They brought their five children, including a daughter with Down syndrome, to Palmyra to participate in the pageant. (Darren Mathews)

PALMYRA, N.Y. — A Mormon father who works in the theater industry near Times Square brought his family to Palmyra so they could participate in the annual Hill Cumorah Pageant.

Erik Orton, 39, from New York City, is a writer, director and producer working near Times Square. In 2009, he won an Emmy Award for his Off-Off Broadway original musical Berlin. But this year, just like last, Orton and his family of seven will be participating in a large outdoor production in upstate New York.

“I had no interest in doing (the) pageant whatsoever,” Orton said. “The only reason I did it was because of my kids. I was miserable the first week, but by the time we did the initial run-through, I had a change of heart and realized that there’s something here. It’s not the type of theater I usually do. It’s its own completely separate thing, but for what it is, it’s amazing and beautiful.”

The shows Orton enjoys are much the opposite from what you’d find at Hill Cumorah. He said his dream production, his favorite place to work theatrically, is small black box theater. It’s the type of theater that uses the bare minimum — almost no set or props and is mostly implied. With its cast of 735 members, seven-level stage, elaborate costumes and Hollywood special effects, it’s easy to see the contrast at Cumorah.

Erik and Emily Orton pose for a photo in their costumes for the Hill Cumorah Pageant. They brought their five children to Palmyra to participate in the pageant. Erik works in the New York City theater industry and initially wasn't comfortable in the large-scale pageant. (Darren Mathews) Erik and Emily Orton pose for a photo in their costumes for the Hill Cumorah Pageant. They brought their five children to Palmyra to participate in the pageant. Erik works in the New York City theater industry and initially wasn't comfortable in the large-scale pageant. (Darren Mathews)

“The proper word is spectacular,” said Orton, who was Nephi from 3 Nephi last year and this year, he is part of the Samual rabble that throws things at Samuel the Lamanite. “There’s nothing subtle about what we’re doing here. It’s big. It’s loud. It’s beautiful. It’s strong. For all of that power, they’re able to create these key moments in the show where it’s absolutely still, and it’s absolutely poignant and insightful. I think that’s one of the brilliant things about this show.”

Another contrasting element is the family atmosphere this performance brings to those participating and attending. Families must apply and commit to participate together full time for 17 days. The Ortons, who are Mormons, are unusual in that they are one of three families that have a member with Down syndrome. Erik’s wife Emily said she’s seen firsthand how her daughter Lily, 5, has helped connect to the audience — even with those who may not be members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“We go out to greet people, and some people want to give you the stone face and turn away,” Emily Orton said. “When Lily comes and tugs on their hand and says ‘welcome to pageant,’ they can’t look at her and continue to be stone face or rejecting. Almost every person that she talks to, if they notice her at all, would open right up and let us give them a little love.”

The pageant can be a faith-building experience, even for young children. In addition to rehearsals, which can be inspiring in themselves, cast members participate in daily devotionals, missionary training and community service projects. Emily Orton described a lesson her youngest son, 7-year-old Eli, learned while on stage.

“Eli said to me, ‘So that guy isn’t really Jesus, he’s just an actor. And we’re not really Nephites,’ ” she said. “And then he looked around the whole stage and said to me, ‘But we are all really Heavenly Father’s children. I figured it out.’ Then I told him that was good, because me telling him these past six years didn’t leave a dent, but him figuring it out on his own makes all the difference in the world.”

The pageant experience is a unique blend of theatrical performance combined with a spiritual connection to the stories portrayed. Some theater merely seeks to entertain or shock, but the Hill Cumorah Pageant seeks to enrich and strengthen testimonies of the cast and the audience. For those who truly feel the Spirit while performing, the pageant is a catalyst to be more bold in sharing their own witness of the Savior Jesus Christ.

Karina Orton, 16, summed up her two years of pageant experience: “If you can do it, it's the best way to spend your summer!”

The Hill Cumorah Pageant opened July 12-13 and continues this week. Parking and admission are free to the public, with shows starting at 9 p.m. each night. The program offers Spanish and ASL translation services, and the grounds are handicapped-accessible. For more information, go to www.hillcumorah.org.

Corey Camp is a Brigham Young University graduation who is a volunteer with the Hill Cumorah Pageant's public relations.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company