For its final production of the season, the Walnut Street Theatre is presenting a musical that was a hit in London and then on Broadway. Miss Saigon premiered in London in 1989 and ran for 10 years. When it opened on Broadway in 1991, it racked up 11 Tony nominations.
Now the Walnut is presenting its own all-new production, which opens this week and continues to July 17.
With echoes of Madame Butterfly, this love story is about an American soldier and Vietnamese girl who fall in love and then are separated during the fall of Saigon. The music is by the composers who created the memorable music for Les Miserables.
On the main stage of the Walnut, it’s the actors who bring this story to life. But the scenic design helps create the world of Saigon, including crowded streets and a seedy nightclub.
The most stunning element of the stage set is the full-scale helicopter, which appears onstage in a scene near the end of the second act. It’s been a famous part of Miss Saigon ever since the London production.
The Walnut follows tradition with an actual helicopter made in its own scene shop, which carries two actors across the stage.
“It’s able to rotate and move in every direction,” said Dan Schultz of Fishtown, who is the theater’s technical director. ldquo;The actors enter the helicopter and ride off the stage.”
This helicopter was entirely built in the theater’s scene shop at 3340 Frankford Ave. Formerly an auto mechanic workshop, it’s now the headquarters for creating stage magic.
Inside are four rooms with offices plus spaces where the sets are built. Schultz supervises a staff of 10, including carpenters plus apprentices and a painter.
But it’s Schultz who has the starring role behind the scenes. He designed the helicopter as well as other scenic details for the Miss Saigon set, just as he does for all the Walnut’s major productions.
For Miss Saigon, the helicopter was the major challenge. First, scenic designer John Farrell gave Schultz computer drawings of what he wanted. Then, Schultz set to work designing the structure of a helicopter that could support two people who would fly off the stage seated in it.
Next, he ordered all the material — aluminum for the frame, and sheet metal for the exterior. It took three full weeks to put together a helicopter 19 feet long and 5 feet tall. “It’s about the size of a regular car,” said Schultz.
Once it was built, it had to be transported to the stage of the Walnut Street Theatre in Center City. Usually the sets are transported by rental truck, but this was much too large.
Instead, Schultz arranged for a towing company to do the job. The helicopter was placed on a flatbed and off it went to the theater, with Schultz driving right behind.
When the copter arrived at 9th and Walnut, it was taken down on a ramp and then was transported into the theater and on to the stage with dollies.
This was Schultz’s first chance to see if it actually worked. ldquo;Because of its size, we couldn’t try it out in the shop,” he said. “So we were eager to get it on the stage and see what would happen. And it worked fine — better than we could have hoped.”
Although the helicopter was a major project, Schultz was also responsible for other key details, such as the large hanging panels that rotate on a track and show scenes of Vietnam, including street scenes of a seedy district replete with sex shops and strip clubs. Altogether, Schultz and his staff made six panels, each one 7 feet by 19 feet.
The panels have such elaborate lighting that it takes 9,000 watts of power just for the scenery, said Schultz.
Those panels and other elements of the set also had to be transported to the theater. To do this, Schultz hired one large truck, which carried one load each day for six days.
Schultz was on hand as each load was transferred from truck to stage.
These elements, too, had to be set in place on the stage — the wall panels, the props, the lights.
“We know from experience there are always adjustments to be made,” said Schultz. They’re all worked out during the hectic time known as ‘tech week.’” This is the week of marathon hours for rehearsals when all the technical details are worked out before the dress rehearsal and previews.
During previews, Schultz sits in the audience with clipboard in hand. As he watches the stage closely, he makes notes of any technical details that need to be fixed or fine-tuned at the last minute.
By opening night, his work is over. Because Miss Saigon is the final show of the season, he’ll now do preliminary planning for next season.
But it’s also a chance to wind down after the hectic days of tech week and previews. At home in Fishtown, he and his wife, Ann Marie, enjoy relaxing in their yard and garden.
Schultz is also active in Liberti Presbyterian Church, where he uses his technical skills to set up the sound and handle technical details for the worship band.
The Bridgewater, Mass., native didn’t initially plan a career in theater. Instead, at Messiah College, he earned a degree in filmmaking.
“But I had many friends in the theater program,” he said, which sparked his interest. When he settled in Philadelphia in 1996, he did freelance theater jobs while working on films.
His first was at the Arden Theater, where he painted a stage floor black. “Any idiot could do that,” he joked.
But soon he was doing more, working as a carpenter at the Arden Theater and also working for several scene shops.
ldquo;I found that I enjoyed the theater environment much more than the film environment,” he said. ldquo;It was much more welcoming and friendly.”
He landed the Walnut position when he saw an ad for tech director listed in Art Search. He sent a resume, came for several interviews and was offered the job.
“The Walnut’s reputation is so well known that I was thrilled to be part of this theater, ”said Schultz.
This is his third season with the Walnut, and Miss Saigon is his 15th full-scale production. Each one brings new challenges and satisfaction.
A high moment comes when he’s in the audience, watching the show unfold on the set that he and his staff built from scratch.
“That’s a very satisfying feeling,” he said. “I like the magic you can make out of plywood and paint.” ••
Seeing Miss Saigon
The Walnut Street Theatre’s production of Miss Saigon continues through July 17 on the Walnut Mainstage. Tickets available by calling box office at 215-574-3550 or online at www.walnutstreettheatre.org.