Bats, burros, bugs, rodents and reptiles are like children 5 and younger at this theater: They’re admitted free.
Unlike kids here, they insist on an interactive theater experience.
Consider 1999’s Big River, the musical staged by Phil Shelburne’s P.S. Productions at Spring Mountain Ranch State Park in Red Rock Canyon, amid Mother Nature’s sprawling splendor. And her small surprises.
“I was sitting in the front, I was going to take pictures that night,” recalls Shelburne, who’s got 22 years and 24 shows on his résumé at the “ranch,” as it is affectionately nicknamed. “Right at the top of the show, this 4-foot-long snake came from underneath the set and the actor just kind of froze. I don’t know where my brain was, but I jumped onstage and herded the snake. Then I wrapped it around a fishing pole and threw it into the desert.”
How appropriately Huck Finn of him. Sadly, that limbless theater geek missed a good show, too—all because he just had to have the best seat in the joint.
“We’ve had flying ants so thick it looked like a cloud was following you around onstage,” Shelburne says. “It’s extremely unique, but it’s also quite a magical place.”
Give the magic a fist bump—it’s celebrating a milestone. Having launched productions in 1976, what is known as Super Summer Theatre is entering its 40th season of family friendly fare in the cool(er) mountain air, played to a meadow dotted with picnic blankets, lawn chairs, sub sandwiches, fermented and non-fermented beverages, junk food, potato salad, coleslaw, blurry mobile projectiles (a.k.a. kids) and porta-potties.
Oh, and theater lovers, often up to a thousand of them at a given performance, decked out in theatergoing formalwear of cutoff jeans, fanny packs and flip-flops. Or, if they’re not all connoisseurs of the thespian arts, at least they’re outdoor-at-nighttime/good-entertainment-at-cheap-prices-loving fans (a mere 12 bucks in advance, 20 bucks at the gate).
“It’s one of the best-kept secrets in town,” says Jerry Brooks, who has performed at the ranch in 1776, Fiddler on the Roof, The Unsinkable Molly Brown and Return to the Forbidden Planet—and is the longtime chairman of the board of Super Summer Theatre. (The advisory board includes U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, UNLV’s College of Fine Arts dean Jeffrey Koep and legendary actress Debbie Reynolds.)
“We have a venue that’s unlike anything else in the Valley,” Brooks says of the rustic showcase 18 miles west of Las Vegas. “We have some neat people who work on the Strip who come out to do our shows as actors and directors. They do their thing and earn their wages, but they get bored because it’s the same thing every night and they want to do something different, and give back.”
After preparing the palate last month for the anniversary season with an appetizer—the two-night Keepin’ It Country revue—Super Summer serves up the main course starting June 10-27 with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Farther down the menu will be Bye Bye Birdie (July 8-25), Tarzan (Aug. 12-29) and Lend Me a Tenor (Sept. 10-26).
On the weird-’n’-wonderful scale, Super Summer Theatre gets a standing-O on both counts.
In a nostalgic mood, Vegas Seven invited several Super Summer vets to reminisce about the challenges, frustrations, oddities and, ultimately, unabashed love for the stage at Spring Mountain Ranch State Park.
Joining the remember-when with Shelburne are: Terrence Williams, former artistic director of now-disbanded Stage Door Entertainment (involved in shows by his and other troupes including Ragtime, West Side Story, Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Annie); actor/director Steve Huntsman of Huntsman Entertainment (Godspell, Seussical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, The Wiz, Aida and this year’s Tarzan) and actor/creative director Troy Heard of Table 8 Productions (last year’s Arsenic and Old Lace, this season’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang):
‘NOTHING MORE GORGEOUS’
Williams: “The overall vibe is lots of love and a sense that you’re working on ‘the big show in town.’”
Huntsman: “I’ve been going to the shows since I was 12; the location is out of this world. I went with a church group the first time to see Grease, and it was the first time I was out at Red Rock [Canyon]. When I saw Joseph, it was like, ‘Oh, I want to do that.’ And I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Heard: “You’ve got to fight for attention with God and nature, but it excites you so much that you’re not sitting on a theater chair inside four walls, that stodginess, with an usher walking you to your velvet seat. And the kids are enraptured out there. It heightens the magic.”
Shelburne: “There’s nothing more gorgeous than stepping on that stage when it’s all silence and looking up into the mountain and the occasional braying of the burro. Just beautiful.”
‘THE NAZIS HAD TO RUN’
Huntsman: “During The Wiz, I was playing the Scarecrow. One night the bugs were so bad that when I sang my song at the beginning of the show, my very last note, a very big bug flew right in my mouth and I ended up swallowing it. I have it on videotape! I just kept going because once Dorothy picks us all up, we’re on the yellow brick road and there isn’t much downtime. But maybe that bug had a harder time than I did.”
Shelburne: “I’ve been onstage when there’s been a wildfire burning to the right of us.”
Heard: “Creepy-crawlies come onstage occasionally. My wife, Kady, when we first started dating, she had been cast in Crazy for You out there and she told me there were field mice that would come up.”
Williams: “During tech week, there are sprinklers that pop out of the grass and occasionally soak your lighting consoles. The bats would occasionally swoop, but they were more of a distraction than anything else. And when no one is around, the burros will wander right up to the stage. Tech nights occasionally featured burros surprising you by breathing down your neck as you sat at a table in the meadow.”
Shelburne: “The wind is highly problematic. When we did Man of La Mancha, we had the entire stage-left castle turret just pick up from the force of the wind and throw down in the middle of the meadow. It landed in a big heap. Luckily, the show had just ended and the audience was out.”
Heard: “My wife did The Producers out there, and some of the sets became sails because of the wind. During ‘Springtime for Hitler,’ some of the Nazis had to run.”
Williams: “One of the older [sound] operators had a notorious time keeping up with who was on/off stage and turning mics on and off. We had warned the cast that they should always presume their mics are on for at least 15-20 seconds after they leave the stage. During Ragtime, [an actress] performed her opening song, ‘Goodbye, My Love,’ to an audience that was actually quite silent on this particular Thursday. The song ended and the applause was definitely less than enthusiastic. She exits stage left and we immediately hear, at full volume, no less: ‘This audience SUCKS! They wouldn’t know talent if it came and bit them on the ass!’ Needless to say, the applause did not improve for the remainder of the evening.”
Huntsman: “Every time in Godspell, when we got to the point when we crucified Jesus, those burros would go on and on and on. They must have a sense of humor.”
‘YOU HEAR STRANGE THINGS’
Huntsman: “At the ranch, you play to this huge football field, so it’s important the actors understand you don’t want them to overact, you want them to make interesting [acting] choices and some of them are subtle, but you have to present them in a big way so they read to an audience.”
Shelburne: “The audience’s perspective is different. In most theaters, the audience has the advantage of sitting up so they’re looking down into the stage area. But the way this plays, you can’t see the floor. You lose a playing field that’s quite important. We can’t put a lot of lighting there. You have to handle it differently visually.”
Williams: “The meadow is huge. You need mics for everything. Projection is out the window, particularly if there’s a light breeze.”
Shelburne: “There is very little wing space and no fly space [a large, open area above the stage to accommodate a complex system of ropes, counterweights and pulleys to drop and lift sets and scenery]. So Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is going to be an immensely difficult show. I’ve got a car that drives, floats, flies and is supposed to have personality, not to mention 38 different locations and scenes. We have to build it from scratch, and we have to build a ramp out of the back of the theater.”
Williams: “You have to re-engineer everything with no wings or fly space. I had a performer enter down a rope from the ceiling at center stage. How did he get on the rope? A very complex series of scaffolding and platforming hidden among the lights. A real, driving Model T onstage [in Ragtime]? The set was built around the Model T, so we didn’t have to figure out how to bring it on and off. It was hidden there the entire time.”
Huntsman: “There have been plenty of times when I’ve created an intense, intimate moment onstage. It’s supposed to be when the energy gets all focused and quiet, and that’s when you hear all the merrymaking going on in the audience. The music stops and you hear strange things.”
Heard: “Having had the advantage of being an audience member before I started directing there—and having had the fermented beverages—I know there will be some audience members out there doing the same. So Bye Bye Birdie will be super-super fast. The shows have to be twice as large to keep the attention.”
Forty seasons in, it’s showtime again.
Tune up the band. Turn up the stage lights. Cue the moonlight.
Super Summer Theatre’s 40th Season
Spring Mountain Ranch State Park, Highway 159, Blue Diamond, $20 ($12 in advance), ages 5 and under free, 702-594-7529, SuperSummerTheatre.org.
• Chitty Chitty Bang Bang by P.S. Productions, 8 p.m. Wed-Sat, June 10-27.
• Bye Bye Birdie by Table 8 Productions, 8 p.m. Wed-Sat, July 8-25.
• Tarzan by Huntsman Entertainment, 8 p.m. Wed-Sat, Aug. 12-29.
• Lend Me a Tenor by BNTA/United Production Works, 7 p.m. Thu-Sat, Sept. 10-26.