At 6-foot-4 and 338 pounds, Arizona Cardinals offensive guard Taitusi “Deuce” Lutui says he has a “huge noggin.” So when he was fitted for his Roman soldier costume for the Mesa Arizona Temple Easter Pageant, he had a suggestion.
“I told them if they didn’t have anything my size for a Roman-size helmet, I will wear my USC helmet,” he said, referring to the headgear he wore in 2004 when he and Cards quarterback Matt Leinart won the NCAA football championship for the University of Southern California Trojans.
Lutui, a native of Tonga who grew up in Mesa, is among 450 cast members for what is called the “largest annual outdoor Easter pageant in the world.” It opens officially for nine performances on Wednesday on a massive stage on the north lawn of the temple. The public is also invited to the last dress rehearsal on Tuesday, with two shows, one in English at 7 p.m. and a Spanish edition at 8:30 p.m. “We don’t stop (the performances), and the only reason we call it ‘dress rehearsal’ is just because we are tweaking the lighting,” said Nanci Wudel, who has directed the pageant for five years.
“The cast is the biggest we have had in several years,” she said, noting that 800 people auditioned “and we just had a hard time cutting people out.”
The 65-minute pageant by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints features about 30 scenes related to Christ’s life and ends with a dramatic resurrection scene with special effects. Begun in 1928 as an Easter morning pageant with choral music, with cotton wagons for stages, it has been presented annually except during World War II and several years when the temple was being remodeled.
Shane Dahlen, who plays the role of James, son of Zebede, is making the pageant a family affair. His wife, Nadine, and daughters Gabrielle and Ivy and sons Jordan and Sterling are in the cast, not to mention that Nadine is expecting their fifth child. “Obviously, it is an opportunity to spend time as a family participating in something that is good,” he said.
Dahlen said the pageant is a blessing to his family “as they learn more about Jesus and his life.” He told about successfully encouraging a co-worker, Joyce Powell, a non-Mormon, to audition for the pageant. She is in this year’s cast. “I had a friend two years ago who came and watched it, and the next year, he was in the pageant as one of the Apostles,” Dahlen said. Subsequently, his friend, Howie, was baptized into the church.
Powell, who is involved in a motorcycle ministry at Phoenix First Assembly of God, said she had watched the pageant for two years, but “I never had any idea in the world that I would be part of it.”
“I have never felt anything so humbling in my whole life” to be in the pageant. She plays part of the multitude of mourners at the cross. Powell said the month of practice and rehearsal is worth it. “It is a big commitment, but we serve a big God,” she said.
“Everyone is like a big family,” said Michelle Hunzaker, who plays the role of the condemned adulterer. “This is a wonderful opportunity to be able to gain a more powerful testimony of the Savior’s life. Being cast in this is an amazing experience.” She said relatives in Utah are coming to see the pageant.
Robert Allen of Queen Creek plays the role of the adult Christ for the third straight year, after previously playing Peter. As he
lets his hair and beard grow long, Allen invariably gets people asking him whether he is trying to look like Jesus. “I will be in a grocery store and someone will give me a funny look like they recognize or wonder, and that is just a reminder to me that people are watching and that I need to be on my best behavior,” Allen said.
His son, Jacob, 13, is playing the role of the boy Jesus teaching the elders in the temple. In fact, Allen’s wife, Norine, and all five of their children are in the production.
It is exhilarating, he said, to ride the elevator skyward in the pageant’s final scene, then first seeing “the row of angels praising the Savior and then you see the cast on the stage and then you see 10,000 to 12,000 people looking up with love, adoration and respect. I feel just caught in the middle. I feel the love for them, and I feel the love for him. It is just an overwhelming sensation.”
Roman soldier character Dan Durney, who is joined by daughters Celine, 12, and Danna, 10, in the pageant, relishes walking around the audience in costume before it begins each night. “The kids like the uniforms and the soldiers’ costumes — and all these rings,” he said. Last year, as a Sadducee persecuting Jesus, Durney said, “we could see his face and how he was not really blaming us for the things that we were doing … He really portrayed a forgiveness that came across very strongly.”
In his role as John the Beloved for two years, Jack Wilson of Gilbert said he is blessed to be constantly near the character of Jesus. “I knew the smile and the love he actually had for me,” he said. Wilson said his non-Mormon boss generously lets him off for pageant rehearsals. “He enjoys that I come and do this for my family,” he said.
Lisa Williams of Mesa has played Mary, the mother of Jesus, in a number of venues over the years, but for the first time at the temple pageant. “I have studied her and felt her presence many times,” she said.
“I can’t imagine the many thoughts that went through her mind to raise a special person,” said Williams, who was in the pageant one other time, nine years ago.
“Anyone who comes to the pageant, no matter what their religions are or whether they believe in Christ or they want to believe in Christ, will come and go away a different person if they come with an open heart,” she said.
When: Public dress rehearsal 7 p.m. (English) and 8:30 p.m. (Spanish) Tuesday; performances 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and April 3-7 (English); Spanish performances 8 p.m. Friday and March 31
Where: North lawn of the Mesa Arizona Temple, 525 E. Main St.
Cost: Free, 10,000 chairs and 1,000 bleacher seats. The public can bring chairs and blankets.
Information: (480) 964-7164 or www.easterpageant.org