And it rained. And rained. And rained.
But the rain, along with thunder and lightning and the unexpected antics of about 100 live animals, is among the reasons “Noah — the Musical” has visitors to Branson tapping their toes and applauding a new level of entertainment in a city where nearly 100 shows of all formats already fill stages day and night.
“The whole auditorium gasped when they raised the curtain on the second act,” said Melissa Pulis of Springfield, who saw the show with her 5-year-old son, Collin, soon after it opened in late May. “He kept saying ‘I’m in the middle of the ark,’ and it really felt like we were.”
The larger-than-life musical indeed places spectators in the middle of the action. When the animals board the ark two by two they prance down the aisles right through the audience. The 300-foot-long stage wraps around the seats on three sides.
If that weren’t enough, the distinct aroma of live animals, the swaying of the boat as flood waters lift it from the ground and the powerful dialogue of Noah’s distressed family as the world disappears before them help create a dramatic presentation rarely seen in Branson.
“The Branson audience is used to a musical performance of about 90 minutes, so it’s going to be interesting to see people react to more of a Broadway-style, big theater production,” said Bonnie Bosso, vice president of production for the show, which runs about 2 1/2 hours.
“This show is not just unique to Branson but really unique to the country in terms of its scope and its message,” she said.
Long before guests get their first whiff of hay or hear the first strains of the prerecorded orchestra, they know something is different about this theater and show. On the north side of Branson on a hill distant from the Missouri 76 melee, the three domes of the Sight & Sound Theatre tower above the city, creating an image some locals have called “Little Jerusalem.”
The Sight & Sound Theatre company, based in Strasburg, Pa., is often referred to as “the Christian Broadway” by theater critics and fans. The name Sight & Sound refers to the parables Jesus used to spread his message. It is the company’s first permanent theater outside Pennsylvania.
“The stories are written with all people and all ages in mind,” founder Glenn Eshelman said. “We most certainly appeal to the Judeo-Christian audience, but people from all religions and from all over the world have experienced the show — possibly attracted to the epic proportions and quality of the shows.”
The new theater is Branson’s 53rd and the first since Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Theater opened in 2005.
Physically, at least, no other building in Branson measures up to Sight & Sound. At 339,000 square feet, it is the largest building in the community, more than 100,000 square feet larger than the Branson Convention Center, which opened in September 2007. With 3,811 seats, the 15-year-old Grand Palace offers more seating than Sight & Sound’s 2,085 seats, but Sight & Sound’s structure also includes office space and construction workshops.
The stage also is the biggest in Missouri. Its 40-foot-tall sets are comparable to those of New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, and its 300-foot-long stage is bigger than the one at Radio City Music Hall.
Tom Fish, the architect and project manager during construction, compares it with the Grand Hall of Kansas City’s Union Station, which has a 95-foot-high ceiling and 72,930 total square feet. Fish was a consultant to one of the architectural firms involved with the train station’s renovation and is now director of operations at Sight & Sound.
“The biggest issue we had to deal with was a ventilation system necessary for so many animals in house,” he said. “Designing a green room for the animals was a career first for me. In fact, I’m not sure it’s ever been done in this country.”
Below the massive auditorium and stage is a 35,000-square-foot housing and training facility for a collection of animals almost as diverse as the one in the Bible story of Noah. Camels, llamas, alpacas, pigs, cows, donkeys, zebras and a panoply of birds receive the attention and pampering one might expect for the stars of a major theatrical production. The soundtrack from “Noah” gently fills the animals’ living quarters 24 hours a day. Fresh hay fills their stalls each day. The animals receive recreation in an adjacent five-acre pasture. And although they don’t require makeup, the animals are each brushed and groomed every day before their performance.
In some ways the Branson version of “Noah” even one-ups the Bible story. The version in Genesis requires two of each species; the Branson production requires three. Although the animals enter the ark two by two, a third “understudy” is waiting in the wings.
The collection is missing one species that had been written into the script. A pair of skunks, meant to provide a lighthearted moment as Noah holds his nose at their passing, were eliminated by Branson ordinances.
“Apparently the city of Branson is afraid that the skunks would procreate within the city limits,” Bosso said.
Branson didn’t excise all the humor from the show. In a scene not clearly referenced in Genesis, Noah climbs from one story to the next in the ark, checking on the animals. When his wife calls him to dinner, instead of going back down four flights of stairs, Noah simply slides down a fire pole.
One challenge for actors was adapting to so many live critters in the spotlight. At auditions, which were held in about a dozen places across the country beginning last December, the actors were asked about any allergies to or fears of animals. Rehearsals included bonding time between the animals and the 45 actors. Watch closely as a St. Bernard puppy puts its head on Noah’s lap and you’ll see Noah discreetly reward the dog with a treat.
Actress Candida Arvizu, 34, who moved to Branson from New York in 1995, plays three roles — a belly dancer, an ark worker and Havah, a friend of Noah’s family. It is her responsibility to get the pigs, rabbits and pigeons on board the ark.
“The animals certainly keep things lively,” Arvizu said. “I try to help my friend manage the goats because they are so anxious to get on board and be rewarded with a treat that it’s like water skiing down the aisle just holding onto their ropes.”
Despite highly technical production values that include fireworks, nearly 200 animatronic animals and a laser light show, among the most important pieces of equipment are a broom, a shovel and an invention nicknamed the “poo-boni.” Just as a Zamboni is used to clean up and freshen the surface on ice rinks, the poo-boni cleans up the droppings occasionally left by the animals in the public areas of the theater.
“We try to feed and exercise the animals on a very strict schedule so as to minimize their deposits, but we anticipate accidents to happen and the audience to play along with it,” Fish said.
The Sight & Sound Theatre has been in the works for nearly five years. In addition to the hundreds of temporary jobs created during construction, the theater employs 250 people full time, including some who have moved to Branson to be part of the show.
“This is a destination, not just an experience within the destination of Branson,” Bosso said.
“Noah” is performed at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday at the Sight & Sound Theatre, 1001 Shepherd of the Hills Expressway. If you’re taking children to see the show, ask for seats on the center aisle for the best view of the animals.
Backstage tours of the Sight & Sound Theatre begin June 21. The cost will be $9 per person.
•Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Theater, which opened in 2005 at 1600 W. Missouri 76, has added a five-acre outdoor events arena called Area 57, ideal for car and motorcycle shows. Each weekend Area 57 screens drive-in movies from the 1950s. Bring a lawn chair or blanket to throw on the ground.
•Titanic: The World’s Largest Titanic Museum Attraction, 3235 W. Missouri 76, open since 2006, has remodeled the upstairs first class dining room to incorporate memorabilia from the 1997 blockbuster movie “Titanic.” It includes wardrobe items worn by Kate Winslet and Kathy Bates, plus a diamond and sapphire necklace similar to “The Heart of the Ocean” that appeared in the movie.
•Celebration City, 1338 Missouri 376, an amusement park affiliated with Silver Dollar City, has a new water ride called Roaring Falls. Splashing through a simulated Amazon forest, the raft carrying you and your friends drops 50 feet to raging rapids below.
SIGHT & SOUND Sight & Sound Theatres was founded in 1975 by Glenn and Shirley Eshelman of Lancaster County, Pa., and entertains more than 800,000 guests a year at two theaters there.
“Noah — the Musical” debuted there in 1995. It is scheduled to continue in Branson through 2009. It will be replaced by another Bible story production by Sight & Sound. Among those are “In the Beginning,” “Behold the Lamb,” “Abraham and Sarah — a Journey of Love,” “Ruth,” “Daniel — a Dream, a Den, a Deliverer” and “Psalms of David.”
BY THE NUMBERS: ‘NOAH — THE MUSICAL’
•11: Number of pieces in the interior of the ark that weigh more than 100,000 pounds.
•60: Loads of laundry done each week for the show.
•70: Surround-sound speakers in the auditorium.
•75: Wigs worn by cast members.
•300: Feet in the length of the wraparound stage.
•375: Costumes worn by cast members.
•2,000: Number of lighting instruments used in “Noah,” producing 2 million watts of light.
•2,085: Seats in the theater.
•26,550: Square feet in the stage area, including two side stages.
•339,000: Square feet in the Sight & Sound facility.
Information courtesy of The Kansas City Star