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A big cast for a big story

Jesus is a salesman at Sears.

John the Baptist works in the billing department at a Brandon telecommunications company.

The high priest is a postal worker and the adulteress, saved by Jesus from a stoning, is a Tampa Palms Elementary music teacher. The demonic boy is a salesman.

And Mother Mary is a Seminole Presbyterian School student.

"I sit there and hold the little baby," explained Natasha Gutierrez, 16. "And act virginally."

They're all part of an Easter show at Idlewild Baptist Church. The 1,000-member congregation with the auditorium-like sanctuary doesn't do anything small.

Not their sell-out Christmas program with fake snow, real babies playing Jesus, and a massive chorus. Not their Fourth of July program with indoor fireworks.

Certainly not the story of Jesus from cradle to cross. For this Easter extravaganza, nothing was held back.

Cast and crew for Savior number 400, mostly amateurs, and some whole families. The orchestra adds another 55. Since Jan. 8 church members have been practicing hard, sometimes still in work clothes or Little League uniforms.

But as with the Creation, chaos precedes order.

"Where is the baby?" asks music director Ron Upton. "Do we have a baby Jesus?"

Not at this rehearsal, someone replies.

"It's fun," said Gutierrez, who in addition to Mary has played a revived dead girl in other Idlewild performances.

"It's an excellent opportunity to let people know the true meaning of Easter," said Matt Swanson, the 24-year-old salesman who has to act possessed. In a fit of rage, he runs on stage. "We are legions, for we are many," he yells.

"Come out of this man, evil spirit," replies Jesus, played by Greg McGregor.

McGregor has portrayed Jesus 16 times, mostly for a Baptist church in Memphis. "When I moved to Tampa, they would fly me in just to play the part," he said.

He used to look more like the popular image of Jesus, with shoulder-length brown hair and a full beard, but he had to get a shave and a haircut for his job interview at Sears.

The script comes from the Rev. Ken Whitten, church member Gayle Dargan, and the Bible. "Pulled straight out of the good book," Dargan said.

This year's version is narrated by Lazarus, the man Jesus raised from the dead. He knows both life and death, a Christian theme at Easter, Dargan said.

The show includes 15 songs and 11 scenes, including Jesus' baptism, the miracles, the Last Supper, the betrayal, the crucifixion, resurrection and a finale.

The scenery equals any found on Broadway, with a Biblical marketplace, stone wall and a cross where Jesus hangs, although the nails are really painted loops.

Care and effort show up even in the smallest detail; human-hair beards for the Hebrew chorus come from a theater company in New York.

"Remember no jewelry or eyeglasses on the Hebrew people," Upton says, putting final touches during a rehearsal.

"Move the manger scene back a little bit."

"We need Mary and Joseph for that one."

"When Jesus starts coming through, everyone start looking at him, but watch me for cut-offs."

Come opening night, they will be ready.

"By the grace of God," says Dargan. "We pull it off in time to tell the story."

If you go

Shows are 7:30 p.m. March 21-24, with 4:30 p.m matinees on March 22 and 23. Tickets are $5 and can be purchased between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. in the church's welcome center. For reservations, call 264-4636, ext. 450.