Miss Saigon taking off at the Walnut

Dan Schultz, tech­nic­al dir­ect­or at the Wal­nut Street Theat­er, works on he set for “Miss Sai­gon”, Fri­day, May 6, 2011.

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.

You can reach at rrovner@aol.com.

comments powered by Disqus