BRADENTON -- It takes a lot of work to make magic.
Or to tell the Christmas story in all its religious and secular complexity.
First Church of the Nazarene, 1616 59th St. W., has been telling the story through its production of the Living Christmas Tree for 29 years.
This year’s production, titled “Just Believe,” has been in rehearsal since August with a cast and crew of 300.
Denny Thomas, the church’s pastor of worship arts who serves as director and producer, was pushing the company hard, and himself even harder this week, trying to make the show as entertaining and flawless as possible.
“Let’s pray and then we’ll begin,” Thomas said at a practice Wednesday night.
“Give us the patience and flexibility to accomplish this grand task before us,” Thomas prayed.
The production takes its name from two towering Christmas tree stage sets, which are filled with choir members. But it also includes dance numbers, talented soloists, and cast members of all ages -- toddlers to retirees.
Highlights to look for include a Santa’s sleigh that passes over audience members’ heads from the balcony area in back of the church’s soaring sanctuary to the front of the church, where the set includes “St. Catherine’s Orphanage” on one side and a snow-dusted toy store and church on the other.
Lighting director Kim Grant is in her 25th year with the Living Christmas Tree.
“What keeps me coming back is the message that is being presented and the heart of the people who are putting this on towards service for the community in honor of the message of Christmas,” said Grant, a Moody Elementary School teacher.
“We sweat every year,” she said of the difficulty of mounting such an ambitious performance. “But the Lord blesses us and puts His hand of grace on this production and it comes off,” Grant said.
The Living Christmas Tree is a blend of everything that’s magical about Christmas, she said.
That mix includes joyous family fun of the holiday as well the message of the Christ child presented in a format that appeals to a wide spectrum of people.
“We have cast members that started out as children, are still in the production and now they have their kids involved,” Grant said.
Church office manager Barbara Ketterman is among those working behind the scenes, primarily with ticket sales.
“I’ve been here 20 years and there has been quite a bit of change. We started out doing one weekend of four performances, now we do nine performances,” Ketterman said.
The first performances are today and Sunday and continue Dec. 7, 9, 10 and 11.
“The sets and the technology has changed dramatically,” Ketterman said.
The constant changes -- the program changes completely annually, and the sets change every couple of years -- help keep the production fresh.
Living Christmas Tree represents a huge investment of personal time on the part of cast and crew during the holiday season.
“People do it out of love for the community.” Ketterman said.
There is something for everyone, including Christmas carols and Santa Claus, and in the second half the message becomes deeply spiritual.
“We always have people comment on how professional it is and that they enjoy it so much,” Ketterman said.
Tickets are $8 each and may be purchased at www.fcnbonline.org.
Tickets can also be purchased in the church foyer before and after Sunday morning services, or in the church office 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 941-745-7021.
IF YOU GO
What: Living Christmas Tree performance
Where: First Church of the Nazarene, 1616 59th St. W., Bradenton
When: 3 and 7 p.m. Dec. 3 and 4
7:30 p.m. Dec. 7 and 9
3 and 7 p.m. Dec. 10
3 p.m. Dec. 11
Cost: $8 a ticket, available at www.fcnbonline.org.