Two-by-two, animals march into the magnificent ark. One-by-one, people from around the country are inspired by the legendary story of Noah being told. “Noah–The Musical” is now on stage at the new Sight & Sound Theatre in Branson, Mo.
A scene from “Noah–The Musical” from a performance in Pennsylvania. The show opened in Branson, Mo., this May. Sight & Sound Theater photo
More than 2.4 million people have seen “Noah–The Musical” that premiered in 1995 at Sight & Sound’s original location in Lancaster, Penn. The epic production features a cast of 45 actors, live animals that blend with hundreds of animatronic creatures, a 40-foot-tall ark and a 300-foot wrap-around stage. Two theater veterans are instrumental in keeping this nightly voyage on its course.
Meet Production Stage Manager Dan Lehning and Director of Operations Ernie Stauffer, two men who are dedicated to their careers as well as spreading God’s word.
Lehning has spent 10 years with Sight & Sound and came to Branson from Pennsylvania in January.
“I’ll stay here until the Lord moves me on,” Lehning said.
He began his career in 1998 as a cast member in “Noah.” Now Lehning manages the staff and maintains the show’s integrity while working with the director. He said coming here and working with different actors for the same show he’s been a part of for 10 years is a challenge. Conveying the meaning of the story and incorporating the actors’ interpretations were difficult because he said the actors have their own feelings and aspirations.
Stauffer has been with the theater for 17 years and began his journey with Sight & Sound from a hands-on position working behind the scenes in the production shop. Similar to Lehning, Stauffer has to make sure everything happens the way it’s supposed to, but more so with the employees at Sight & Sound.
“I have to make sure employees are living the culture Sight & Sound wants,” Stauffer said, adding that they want each person to perform their God-given abilities the best they can.
“We have fabulous people here and the people are what make us successful,” he said.
?Dan Lehning helps to bring “Noah” to audiences at Sight & Sound Theater. Lori Schueler photo
A challenge the crew faced when preparing for the “Noah” production in Branson was having to rehearse in the midst of building construction. Workers were still putting in seats and armrests and carpet was being installed while the cast was preparing for the show.
“The teams came together so well. We have opened shows in Pennsylvania with a much more experienced crew that went rockier than this,” Stauffer said.
The cast not only had to consider the construction, but also had to share stage time with the animals when rehearsing.
Audience members sit up in their seat a little straighter, smiles appear on faces and heads turn looking for the next animal to be brought on stage during the loading scene.
Horses are led down the aisles to the stage. Sheep, goats, turkeys and pigs run in from the side of the stage and climb into the ark by themselves.
Eight to nine trainers worked with the animals for about a year using positive reinforcement and target training. Consistency, safety, time and patience are needed.
To get the animals to go on stage and be comfortable with the surroundings, trainers use a gradual adaptation process. They have “animal integrated days” where the animals begin to share the stage with the cast. Also, the actors have bonding time with the animals to develop a relationship.
“It’s a huge group effort,” Lehning said.
Lehning said horses particularly enjoy their time on stage. Because they may take a few seconds longer in the spotlight, horses can throw off the timing of the show, and the cast must accommodate for lost time.
Altogether, 300 live and animatronic animals fill the stages. Stauffer said all the animals are owned by the theater, live on site and are considered a part of the Sight & Sound family.
After intermission, house lights slowly come up on a breathtaking set. Eleven pieces, some 40-feet in height, which resembles the ark in the Bible, link together across the stage. The interior of the ark wraps around the audience inviting them on board for the 40-day and 40-night ride.
The stage is said to be one of the largest in North America with an area of 26,550 square feet. As the largest theater in Branson, the building is 339,000 square feet and has seating for 2,085 people.
About 20 people–engineers, metalworkers, carpenters, electricians, fiberglass specialists and scenic artists–worked in the scene shop to construct the set for 15 months.
Designed and sewn by Sight & Sound, the production includes 375 costumes cut from 38,000 yards of fabric, which results in 60 loads of laundry each week. In addition, 75 hairpieces and wigs are used in the show.
A “Behind the Scenes Tour” is available through Dec. 11. Participants learn about the process in bringing this show to life, see the animals and even step on stage.
For 30 years, Sight & Sound has brought epic stories of the Bible to life on stage. Founded by Glenn and Shirley Eshelman in 1976, the company started out through Glenn’s talents for painting and photography.
“I really like the message of the show that gets brought about in the end. It takes a story that people have known for a long time and tells it in a different and unique way,” Lehning said. “It relates the story to today’s world in the end.”
There is no curtain call after the show because the cast and the crew believe the reason for the show and the credit for the performance should be given to Christ, not them.
Lehning and Stauffer are just two members of the Sight & Sound family who work behind the scenes to help make this show a success each time. Teamwork and dedication among the staff is what makes the show a spectacular and memorable experience.
Lori Schueler is an intern for AAA Midwest Traveler and AAA Southern Traveler.