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A Whale of a Tale

Putting Russell Crowe on your side provides a healthy advantage at the multiplex, but star power alone doesn’t explain the success of this spring’s big-budget film Noah. The movie’s audience also points to the permanent appeal of the Bible stories many of us learned by listening to Sunday school lessons or playing with plastic animals marching into plastic boats.

That timeless message is no revelation to Sight and Sound Theatre, a massive building that commands a hill just outside Branson, Missouri, with a look that melds Middle Eastern and evangelical megachurch architectures. 

Most of Branson specializes in theaters delivering country music, corny humor and salutes to entertainers of decades gone by. But Sight and Sound stands out with an approach that wraps Broadway production values around a Bible Belt message.

This spring’s new show, Jonah, revisits a reluctant prophet through the theater’s trademarks: towering village sets, moving musical numbers and plenty of live animals on a stage that fills three sides of the theater. When Jonah flees God’s call to Nineveh, he boards a ship that sails onto the stage, complete with a hull that swings open to reveal passengers arguing below decks. When Jonah lands underwater following intermission, ocean creatures swim above the 2,100 seats on poles carried by cloaked actors. The play’s costar arrives as a massive inflatable whale swimming throughout the theater, its eerie songs reverberating through the walls.

Yet even with all the showmanship, Jonah’s famous time-out in the whale’s belly occupies only about 20 minutes of the two-hour show. Sight and Sound’s stories challenge audience members to think beyond kids’ version of the story. This telling probes Jonah’s loathing of the Ninevites, who he’d rather see damned than pardoned by God. By the final scene, the murderous Ninevites have repented with a big gospel number called “I Am Free,” and Jonah is an embittered recluse simmering in his own hate.

That’s where the Bible leaves Jonah. But Sight and Sound’s version brings him around with the realization that we all must grant others the mercy we expect for ourselves. As Jonah has a literal “come to Jesus meeting,” the audience ripples with whispered “Amens.” And when the house lights come up, one of the actors points out theater staff waiting in the aisles to pray with anyone so inclined. You won't see that at the multiplex or on Broadway, but at Sight and Sound, it's a pitch-perfect encore.

Photos courtesy of Sight and Sound Theatres.

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