August 28, 2008

Colossal Cast of Prehistoric Monsters Come to Life

By Mike Boehm

When the angry, life-sized mama T. rex came roaring through a curtain to defend its young during the St. Paul, Minn., run of "Walking With Dinosaurs -- the Live Experience," Kristi Curry Rogers momentarily stopped thinking like a professor and responded like a protective mom.

"I have a 5-year-old daughter, and at that moment, I thought, 'I'm really glad she didn't come with me,' " said the dinosaur expert from Macalester College in St. Paul, who was there to apply the cool eye of science to one of America's hottest entertainment tours. "The adults gasped, and almost all the young children started crying."

Since last summer, what's likely the biggest cast ever to command a spotlight has roamed America's arenas, to the accompaniment of smoke, sound, light effects and dramatic music -- and a fact-filled narration by an actor-ringmaster playing the part of a paleontologist.

The show arrives in Pittsburgh in December for seven performances.

The 42-foot-long T. rex and nine mobile giant dinosaurs are controlled by a driver at the bottom of each creature and two- member teams of high-tech puppeteers stationed in a booth high above the floor. Five smaller carnivores that round out the cast are inhabited by realistically dinosaur-suited actors who have no intention of being confused with Barney.

The "Walking With Dinosaurs" arena show, created and launched in Australia, is loosely based on the 1999 BBC television series of the same name. Tailoring a story was the job of director Scott Faris, who had made a name for himself in the world of mega-effects stage productions.

Faris' credits include a foreign touring production of the musical "Chicago." Two years ago, Faris went to Melbourne to hear the dinosaur producers' pitch. They introduced him to the first creature made for the $20 million show -- a hulking, horned torosaurus.

"It was love at first sight," said the director, who grew up in Southern California and whose boyhood passion for dinosaurs led to numerous visits to the fossil halls at L.A.'s Natural History Museum. "They were taking it through its paces, and it was mind- boggling."

Faris' main challenge was to make "Walking With Dinosaurs" a show with characters rather than just a parade of prehistoric monsters. Soon, he found himself playing pretend with the show's music composer and scenic designer, as though they were 7-year-olds acting out their dino-fantasies.

"We were creating what the story could be, so you could build scenes with action rising to a climax, and a resolution."

Meanwhile, Sonny Tilders, an Australian special-effects expert whose credits include engineering the monsters seen in "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith" was overseeing the dinosaur building. He and his 55-member assembly team devised ways to make Lycra and paint look like reptilian skin and to line it with beanbaglike material that produces the illusion of muscles rippling as the creatures move.

From her arena seat, Curry Rogers, the paleontology professor, found some bones to pick. The stegosaurus and taurosauruses seemed a tad steroidal. But the brachiosaurus, biggest-in-show at 36 feet high and 56 feet long, struck Rogers as substantially undersized.

All in all, though, she gives "Walking With Dinosaurs -- the Live Experience" a thumbs-up.

Even the tearful little ones seemed to recover nicely from the mother T. rex's fearsome entrance, she said.

"I don't want to give it away, but in the scariest moments, there's something funny that happens quickly that makes them laugh. They were all happy at the end, walking out and buying dinosaur paraphernalia."

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