‘Queen Esther’ on stage in Branson

Emily Baker has the starring role in “Queen Esther,” the latest show to be staged at Branson’s Sight & Sound Theatre. Previously, Baker had been one of the women portraying Mary in “Miracle of Christmas.”
(Courtesy photo)
Emily Baker has the starring role in “Queen Esther,” the latest show to be staged at Branson’s Sight & Sound Theatre. Previously, Baker had been one of the women portraying Mary in “Miracle of Christmas.” (Courtesy photo)

After telling the story of Jesus for two years, Branson's Sight & Sound theater is turning to the Old Testament for inspiration, bringing Queen Esther's story to the stage.

The production, which made its southern Missouri debut last weekend, is already drawing throngs to the 2,000-seat venue, 15 miles north of the Arkansas state line.

The show had previously packed Sight & Sound's other 2,000-seat theater in Lancaster County, Pa., roughly 65 miles west of Philadelphia.

Esther is a Hebrew Bible heroine who catches the eye of Ahasuerus, the hard-drinking King of Persia, during a royal beauty pageant of sorts, and becomes his queen.

Once she has gained royal favor, she uses her new-found influence to save herself and the rest of the empire's Jewish diaspora from those seeking their demise.

Over the past 15 years, Sight & Sound Theatres has already brought Noah, Joseph, Jonah, Moses and Samson to Branson.

Now it's Esther's time in the spotlight.

Today, like most Saturdays, there are three performances of "Queen Esther" -- at 11:30 a.m., 3:30 and 7:30 p.m.

No shows are scheduled on Sundays or Mondays.

Pre-tax ticket prices are $29 for children ages 3-12; adult tickets are $59 on weekdays and $64 on Saturdays.

Emily Baker, part of the Branson cast since 2017, was cast in this year's lead role.

There's no shortage of stages in Branson.

The city has "more seats than Broadway," said Lynn Berry, director of communications for the The Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Last year alone, Branson, population 12,638, welcomed 10.2 million visitors. Many of them are eager to see epic biblical stories on a stage that dwarfs the one at Radio City Music Hall.

"Since 2008, the Sight & Sound theater has been one of the leaders in our theater community, and in this industry, we do have 108 different shows from which to choose. But year after year, Sight & Sound is in the top five," Berry said.

Sight & Sound has long been the No. 1 tourist attraction in Pennsylvania's Amish Country.

Now it's the nation's largest faith-based theater company.

"Each year, across our [two] locations, we welcome over a million guests into our theaters," said Kortney Neal, the theater's marketing and customer relations manager.

Launched around the time of the nation's bicentennial, the company originally presented patriotic slide displays, later expanding to include live acting and singing.

In 1987, it debuted "Behold the Lamb," the first of its major theatrical performances. It has been a major tourist draw ever since.

After a 1997 fire gutted its Pennsylvania theater, the company rebuilt bigger and better.

A 2000 Washington Post story said the new venue offered "Vegas without vice," adding, "Words fail when trying to describe the huge gleaming theater with its burnt orange walls and glowing fiberglass domes. Here, less is not more. More is more."

The theater's "very glitzy glory," as the Post put it, is on full display at Branson as well.

"We have sets that are three stories high. We have dozens of animals that run through the aisles and a cast of over 50 people in each one of our productions, so it's grown quite a bit in just a short amount of time," Neal said.

Sight & Sound is not only a source of entertainment, it's also a major employer, providing jobs to roughly 300 Branson-area residents, including several from Arkansas.

It takes an entire team just to care for the creatures.

"We have all kinds. We have camels, horses, donkeys, goats, sheep, macaws," Baker said, shortly before Tuesday's performance.

The story of Esther is found in the book of Esther, one of only two named after women. The biblical account omits any explicit references to the Almighty, Baker noted.

"Nowhere in this story is His actual name mentioned. But ... throughout the whole show, you can't help but see Him in every detail," she said.

Baker previously played Mary in "The Miracle of Christmas," which was performed, most recently, last year.

Appearing on stage, at a faith-based production, allows her to pursue her greatest passions, she noted.

"My three loves have always been animals, theater, and ministry and spreading the gospel," Baker said. "Having a place like Sight & Sound that combines all three of my loves in a really larger-than-life kind of way, that's why I love working here."

The goal is to point people toward God, not simply amuse them.

"We want people to leave, obviously, feeling entertained, feeling like they had a good time but also knowing the heart of the story that we're trying to portray," Baker said. "We would love for people to leave knowing that they are not alone and that God is in the details of everyone's life. And if they were to look, they would just see Him there."

  photo  “Queen Esther,” which premiered March 11 at Branson’s Sight & Sound Theatre, is scheduled to run until Dec. 30. The 2,000-seat performance hall attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. (Courtesy photo)

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