The real drama lies behind the scenes of "Texas"

August 7, 2011 12:39:09 PM PDT
If Cyndi Hoffman had been part of "Texas" three years ago, she might have been singing and dancing in front of the thousands who see the show six nights a week.

She wouldn't have been having as much fun as she is now, though.

Hoffman is one of the dozens of people behind the scenes at the musical, one of those the audience might glimpse briefly during a scene change, but are otherwise invisible.

A night spent backstage watching the show from the production crew's viewpoint, however, proves the real action takes place behind the singing and dancing cowboys.

5 p.m.

Most of the crew is already on site. A handful is on stage, scrubbing it down with a power washer to blast off the residue left behind from a 10-minute cloudburst that swept in on a recent Friday night. Hospitality team members sweep the aisles, cleaning up mud, trash and water.

Nune Perez, the show's new technical director, is among the hands on stage, running a giant squeegee up and down the stage, leaving the dance area as dry as possible.

He's waiting to give the OK to another crew member, Kevin Friemel, to run the detonation cord that provides the show's biggest bang every night -- the lightning strike that splits a tree near the wall of the canyon. Though Friemel has run that cord dozens of times, there's no work with any explosives until the certified master pyrotechnician, Rick Bertram, arrives on site.

6 p.m.

Hoffman is adjusting lights, first climbing near-vertical steps to the top of the side stage unit on stage right. Next she crosses to stage left and clambers up a light tree.

Actors and dancers are arriving, as has Bertram, who's ready to make the 750-foot trek back to the lightning tree with Friemel, who's carrying a 1,000-foot roll of detonation cord, or "det cord." The hike to the tree takes Bertram and his companions up some rocks and through mud and brush, but it's nothing compared to the climb awaiting Friemel at the tree.

He ties the end of the det cord to a rope attached to his belt loop, then heads up the wall of the canyon -- a 500-foot climb up rocks and around the back of a saddle-shaped outcropping. Friemel loops the cord around a large rock. Back at the tree, Friemel cuts the cord with a pair of utility scissors.

"You can cut it, tie a knot in it, set it on fire," Bertram explained. "Just don't compress it very hard."

Friemel attaches the blast caps to the cord, sweat dripping from his bushy beard and his black shirt completely soaked through.

7 p.m.

Perez and Hoffman walk around the canyon floor, checking the fire bars -- charred pieces of rebar with an electric spark mechanism that starts burning propane gas for the fire ballet sequence in the show's second act. Six fire bars are scattered around, and during the pre-show check, it's noticed that a couple aren't working properly.

The male chorus has come to the stage now, walking the evening's guest performer through his one scene in the bunkhouse. On stage left, Brandon Wilhelm, captain of a 10-person stunt team, starts preparation for the show's biggest stunt -- the cowboy who bursts into flame during the fire ballet. He sets a large ice chest behind a set piece; inside is the water-based gel that will cover the head of tonight's burned actress, Victoria Olivier, and the water-soaked safety suits she'll don.

Back at the control box, Hoffman continues helping Friemel and others get the bars in working order for the night. This isn't the stage work she expected when she started studying musical theater at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, La.

"I like the hectic," she explains. "... I find it more fun to be backstage and have the constant `Oh crap, this is broken now? How are we going to fix it?"'

8 p.m.

The cast begins gathering in a courtyard between the men's and women's dressing rooms. Singers are doing vocal warm-ups, and dancers are in the back, stretching. After a quick meeting, the actors pull on their costumes and put final touches on their makeup.

Shortly, executive director Vince Hernandez takes the stage to welcome 1,135 audience members to the show. As soon as he returns backstage, the cast rushes out. Though they're barely audible backstage, the familiar "We invite you all to come to Texas" is still easily recognizable.

The opening number complete, the cast stampedes off. As the show settles in, it's fairly quiet backstage for the actors. Perhaps that explains why the men's dressing room features a poker table.

9 p.m.

Eight people man the control booth, including master electrician James Bilonski, who runs the light board, and assistant music director Nathaniel Herman, who conducts the songs while wearing white polyester gloves -- the better to catch the light and let the cast and musicians see him from the stage.

Bilonski moves from light cue to light cue while chatting on the radio with his fellow technicians, imagining the show as done by the Muppets.

Bertram comes in to hit the button that will implode the det cord and set off the lightning. Boom! The tree splits, and the audience erupts in applause.

9:30 p.m.

After intermission and the group number signaling the start of Act Two, Olivier heads to stage left to start preparing for her burn. Two dressers help her into the safety suits, a yellow rain slicker, two T-shirts, baggy khaki pants and one final cowboy shirt. Olivier is shivering. The safety suits are chilled to about 45 degrees Fahrenheit.

"This is my least favorite part of the night," she said. "But it's OK, because I'm going to be on fire."

The six fire bars have all erupted into flame. Wilhelm and chorus member Sam Damare paint Olivier's arms, legs and lower back with a super-flammable mixture of contact cement and pyro fluid. Olivier runs on stage, where two dancers set her on fire and she flails about for a few harrowing seconds. Offstage, she flops face-first on a thick, wet blanket while crew members hose her off. Fire extinguishers are on hand but have yet to be used during the stunt.

10:30 p.m.

The show is winding up. Newlyweds Calvin and Elsie are pulling into the station in Henrianna, and the full chorus closes the show with a song. Jets of water start shooting into the air -- part of the new water feature. As the audience starts filing out, the crew is still hard at work.

And it's all starting up again tomorrow. Another thousand or so audience members will be back to see the show from the stage, little aware of the real show they're missing.

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