Photograph By Aaron M. Conway
It was late December and the people of Israel were hungry. For Chipotle. Filing past the coffee kiosk, en route to grab some dinner backstage, these volunteer actors had just come off-stage at Crossroads Community Church in Oakley, where they were midway through a Friday night performance of Awaited, the Christmas spectacular launched by the ever-expanding megachurch in 2007. Catered burritos, soap bubble snow, and a stilt-walking camel may not appear in the biblical version of the birth of Jesus, but when you’ve got a staff of driven young creatives pumped to spread the good news, they’re going to take some artistic license. “It doesn’t snow in Bethlehem, everyone knows that,” says Awaited producer Paula Rakestraw. “But when someone is singing ‘Silent Night’ and it snows in the room, it feels like Christmas.”
With a brand savvy church like Crossroads, you might expect this highly produced show to have spent years in development before being perfectly packaged, P&G-style, as the definitive, must-see holiday experience: Christmas: The Musical!™ But the polish of Awaited has evolved before live audiences over the last nine years.
What began as seven shows over one weekend has ballooned into a $600,000 production involving 250 staff and crew, on top of 5,000 volunteers who greet, seat, sing, sew, dance, play music, and direct parking for a three-week run of 30 free performances. Videos run throughout the show, and the 12-piece band plays with a click track, so they can hear each other and sync to whatever’s being projected on stage. Awaited 2015 required two casts of adults, three casts of children, and two stage crew teams. The show has all the Broadway flash of Andrew Lloyd Webber but is entirely supported by the Mickey Rooney–esque hey-kids-let’s-put-on-a-show dedication of Crossroads members.
This year, Crossroads will double down on the show’s popularity by mounting a second, simultaneous run at their Mason outpost. What’s next, a movie version? Yes, actually. “We have this thing that people are responding to,” says Rakestraw. “Our next initiative is to take it to Mason and beyond that. Do we take it on tour? Create a film version, or film the show itself? In 2007 when we did those seven shows, we knew people were hungry for a Christmas experience for families. We were thinking just of the community. And it evolved.” With 91,000 attendees in 2015, Awaited has joined the ranks of Krohn Conservatory, Festival of Lights, and Macy’s Downtown Dazzle as one of Cincinnati’s larger holiday traditions.
For Rakestraw, a Crossroads staffer whose full-time job is the care and feeding of Awaited, planning for the season starts in January with auditions in June and rehearsals in October. Mason’s auditorium is smaller (2,000 seats versus Oakley’s 3,500) but the feel of the show has to duplicate the original. “We need to make it consistent so everyone’s having the same experience,” she says. “It needs to be branded as Awaited, like a show you’d see on tour.”
However big or elaborate the show gets, its primary purpose, like the free coffee and WiFi, is to get people in the door. “Our main mission is to invite anyone and everyone to connect with God on any level. Especially people who have given up on church,” says Rakestraw. “People may come to a show expecting an old-fashioned church pageant and realize it’s not what they expected. Then maybe they think, If that isn’t what I expected, then maybe going to church here isn’t what I’m expecting. So maybe they’ll come back and give it a try.”