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'Miss Saigon' transports complex sets, equipment weighing 110,000 pounds


Matt Heistand
Arizona Daily Wildcat

A 15-foot, 300-pound statue of Ho Chi Minh and a replica of a 1959 Cadillac are just two of 250 props used in the traveling production of "Miss Saigon." A total of 67 cast and crew travel with the show which begins its run here tomorrow at Centennial Hall.

By Graig Uhlin
Arizona Daily Wildcat,
February 9, 2000
Talk about this story

"Miss Saigon" has been seen by 25 million people worldwide, grossing over $1 billion. In short, it's a big show.

So big, in fact, that Centennial Hall almost did not have the opportunity to house the production. Double doors had to be built into the back brick wall to allow the actors to move around backstage. Loading docks were reinforced, a power box added, and UA Presents equipment was moved into storage.

Moreover, the loaded weight of the suspended scenery - 110,000 pounds in all - is just under the capacity of the Centennial Hall stage. Everything must be suspended in the air in order to fit in the theater.

"You utilize the space that is available to you, that is, vertically," said production manager Mahlon Kruse.

Without these modifications and close calls, Tucson audiences would not be able to enjoy "Miss Saigon" in its original form.

"We don't change the show artistically to fit the theater," Kruse said.

While other shows may take out elements of the production to adapt to a theater, the producer of "Miss Saigon" requires all road productions to maintain the same look that a Broadway theater-goer would see, Kruse said.

And to bring a show as intricate and complicated as "Miss Saigon" on the road without augmentation is a difficult task.

The show utilizes 59 automated scenery effects, nine miles of cables, 17 trucks to move the show across the country, 22 scene shifts, a reproduction of a 1959 Cadillac, a 15-foot statue of Ho Chi Minh and the legendary life-sized helicopter.

All these elements have to come together seamlessly. Everything, said Kruse, "is designed and built to move fast." Set changes are done with the use of computer automation, and throughout the show, the crew is setting up two, three or four scenes at a time.

The goal is to make the art of putting on a show seem effortless, despite the tremendous amount of labor needed.

"It's more than just slinging props around," Kruse said.

In addition to the 24 crew members who travel with the production, local workers were hired under the supervision of the experienced crew, forming a production team 90 members strong.

The local workers learned the dynamics of the production with little rehearsal.

"We rehearse key set changes. Others you learn as you go along," Kruse said. He added that for many of the crew members, the initial performance will mark their first time through a complete show.

In order to make sure everything is running smoothly, the "Miss Saigon" production has to be extremely organized. Each of the trucks used to take the show cross-country are packed in a certain way and the same way every time, Kruse said.

Housed within those trucks is absolutely everything needed for the production. "Miss Saigon" travels with every piece of lighting and equipment - from the tools needed to repair the set to the sewing machines of the wardrobe department.

"We do everything, we bring everything," Kruse said. "(This production) is completely self-sufficient, except for numbers."

One of the largest pieces included is the famous life-sized helicopter that is lowered from above the stage in the climactic scene of the performance.

The helicopter, which took three months to build, will be moved across the country in one piece. In the performance, it will be maneuvered by an 18-foot hydraulic arm allowing for all movements.

The blades of the chopper are less a feat of technical mastery than of showbiz magic. What appear to be 18-foot rotor blades are actually 4.5-foot ropes, weighted at each end. Along with elements of lighting and design, the centrifugal force of the movement gives the impression of a real helicopter descending into the theater.

"Miss Saigon" will be open tomorrow at Centennial Hall and play through Sunday. Ticket prices range from $30 to $62. For tickets, call 621-3341.

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