If people could fly, Andrea Gentry would probably be in another line of work.
As one of a dozen curiously titled “Flying Directors” employed by Louisville, Kentucky-based ZFX Inc., Gentry’s skills involve training people to soar above a stage without wings. She also supervises and helps build the mechanical devices that enable them to do so.
Her company’s specialty of rigging up flying scenes for musicals and other stage productions will be on display this weekend when the Jefferson Performing Arts Society showcases its tour de force staging of Disney’s “Mary Poppins.”
Four members of the cast, including the title character (played by Micah Richerand Desonier) will be transported to dizzying heights over the stage of the Jefferson Performing Arts Center via unseen ropes fastened securely to harnesses concealed in their wardrobes. And, in the show’s grand finale, with trademark umbrella in hand, the magical governess of the Banks household will fly 50 feet above the audience from the stage to the balcony.
Billed as “the biggest production (and) most ambitious and costly investment” ever staged by JPAS in its 38-year history, “Mary Poppins” will run over two weekends from March 11-20.
While the cast of this upbeat musical extravaganza is singing, dancing and flitting above the stage, JPAS general and artistic director Dennis Assaf will be conducting the JPAS Symphony Orchestra through a score of a dozen familiar tunes, including “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “Just a Spoonful of Sugar” and the tongue-twisting “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”
Describing the logistics that make the flying sequences possible, Gentry explained that a series of narrow steel trusses bolted securely above the full width of the stage hold the cables from which the cords that lift and lower the actors and move them laterally through the air are suspended.
The production’s centerpiece is a massive, 80-foot-long truss running diagonally across the theater’s orchestra section between the stage and the balcony. It holds the cables that will convey Mary Poppins on her high-flying farewell in the production’s finale.
A series of powerful chain motors will move the cable along during her flight.
Following a series of equipment tests and trial runs more than a week-and-a-half before opening night, Gentry expressed satisfaction with the results. “We’ve looked at all of our flights and I think everything will be great,” she said. The wires from which the performers will be suspended can hold up to 2,000 pounds, she noted.
ZFX, founded in Las Vegas in the mid-1990s, has staged more than 7,000 productions for dozens of companies worldwide without a mishap. This is the third production Gentry has worked on in the New Orleans area, following performances of “Cinderella” at the St. Bernard Cultural Center and in Slidell. “Mary Poppins,” along with “Peter Pan” and “The Wizard of Oz” are the productions for which ZFX gets its most frequent requests, Gentry said.
Describing her experiences being suspended high in the air during rehearsals, Desonier said, “It was breathtaking. Wonderful. Like a dream.
“I wasn’t sure how I was going to react to being carried across the house but I was not scared in the least,” Desonier continued. “I felt completely comfortable and safe. I don’t have a fear of heights.”
Desonier, who performed the title role in the theater’s grand opening production of “My Fair Lady” last fall and who also sang the lead role of Maria in JPAS’ 2011 production of “The Sound of Music,” was filled with praise for director Kristopher Shaw and the members of the cast and support crew.
“Every person that Kris cast in the show just fits their role so well,” Desonier said. “I am so impressed with their acting, singing and dancing, especially the kids. With a show of this size and complexity, you’ve got to have everything perfectly coordinated and we all work very well together.”
Other cast members include Bryce Slocumb as Bert; Bree Hollis and Christian Collins as the Banks children, Jane and Michael; Louis Dudoussat and Chrissy Bowen as the parents, George and Winifred Banks; Brooke Hagler as Mrs. Brill and William Alber as Roberston Ay.
The ensemble consists of 18 additional cast members and seven dancers, choreographed by Lynne Bordelon and Tara Brewer. Donna Clavijo is the musical director.