SEAWORLD SONGS OF THE SEASON

SeaWorld's new holiday offering a show of biblical proportions

SeaWorld Orlando has rolled out gospel singers, a morphing manger, a mulish donkey puppet, rolling hay bales, a shining star, "Dancing With the Stars" moments, tambourines, a trio of live camels and a heavenly host of characters for its new holiday presentation, "O Wondrous Night — The Greatest Story Never Told."

There are many moving parts in this retelling of the birth of Jesus, as seen from the perspective of the animals of the nativity scene. And it features soaring compositions of dozens of traditional Christmas tunes.

First up are 14 white-robed singers who prove to be top multitaskers. They sing, dance, operate puppets, move scenery, represent angels and literally act as shepherds in the finale. I even found their footwear to be interesting: all manner of white shoes from cowboy boots to ballet slippers to sneakers. And one guy wore a white baseball cap backward. Perhaps the lesson is that there's diversity of accessories when we get to heaven.

The chief storytellers are puppets — a smart-aleck donkey (manned by that guy in the cap), a dove and a sheep. They brag about their own roles in the Christmas story. The dove's boast, I thought, was a bit birdbrained. She boasted that she stole the key to the last room at the inn, therefore Mary and Joseph spent the night in a barn. That's not an upgrade, and it's an odd point of pride.

That's a quibble because animals don't really have key roles in the New Testament versions of the story of Jesus' birth. Remember, this is a story "never" told.

But "O Wondrous Night" is, without doubt, a religious presentation. It's like an ambitious Christmas pageant for a megachurch trying to get funky. It isn't thoroughly solemn. The script makes reference to "Charlie's Angels," the donkey uses the oh-so-2001 phrase "epic fail," and the innkeeper suggests that Mary and Joseph try "the Best Middle Eastern" hotel.

It's good to see SeaWorld debut a holiday offering without axing a previous major attraction. This time of year can be a bit of a pickle for theme parks. Folks want to see their Christmas favorites return at the parks, but don't you feel a little regifted if the lineup doesn't change?

There appears to be an audience for new shows. Some SeaWorld guests lined up an hour before showtime at the 2,000-seat Nautilus Theater on Sunday. Later, I was bemused by dozens of folks who wandered in just before the show started and expected to sit up front in seats that were obviously reserved. What theater fills up from the back? This isn't really Baptist church.

For the finale of "O Wondrous Night," the manger scene expands to accommodate the larger, real animals, including three large camels, goat, sheep and a laid-back alpaca. Doves fly. An angel looms and sings from above.

The volume gets cranked up to a rapturous level, drowning out the applause of the crowd. If producers were going for joyful noise, they got it.

Although the show incorporates a curtain call, many guests make a bee-line for the exits in order to make other productions that are part of SeaWorld's Christmas Celebration programming, including an ice-skating show, the killer-whale show called "Shamu Christmas — Miracles" and the holiday-themed sea lion show.

SeaWorld's Christmas Celebration shows can be seen on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through Dec. 11 and then every day between Dec. 15 and Dec. 31. They are included in regular park admission: $81.99 general, $77.99 ages 3-11. SeaWorld has a discount running through Dec. 25: One child's admission free for each full-paid adult.

dbevil@tribune.com or 407-420-5477
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