Californian lifts local production


March 16, 2000|By Joni Guhne | Joni Guhne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

EIGHTH-GRADER Erica Mallare is a lot like the other kids in her class at Severna Park Middle School: intelligent, talented and adventurous.

But the depth of that last quality separates her from the rest of the youngsters who auditioned for their school's spring musical. In addition to being theatrically talented, she is absolutely fearless when it came to flying.

A girl who can sing like a bird and fly like one, too? She was a natural to play the lead in the school's production of "Peter Pan" that will open next week.

But no matter how willing the brave Erica was to escape her earthly bonds, the wizardry of a California-based company called Flying Illusions-ZFX -- that's Zealous Special Effects for us uninformed Easterners -- is making it happen.

ZFX representative Tom Reed arrived in Maryland two weeks before the show opened with enough technology in his 350-pound trunk to enable earthbound actors to fly through the air as effortlessly as Canada geese drifting northward.

Reed's job was to convince the young cast members that leaping into the air and remaining 12 feet off the ground for more than a split second wasn't unusual. It wasn't the height that bothered the teens -- it was the tight harness, they said.

Ginny Ficker, who plays Wendy Darling, and Jamie Boyle, who plays her brother John, agreed that the leg straps are uncomfortable, but that the discomfort was a fair trade-off for the once-in-a-lifetime thrill.

Erica is nonchalant about being connected to the pulleys. She says flying across the stage "feels like floating."

She adjusted her harness during rehearsal, jumped upon the familiar windowsill, and leapt into the air, as if she'd been flying all her life. Because her part demands that she look the most at ease flying, Erica rehearses her routines again and again.

This willowy teen-ager looks as natural in the air as she does in a mall. She gets the biggest kick out of "floating" over the head of Captain Hook, alias seventh-grader Buddy Pease, whose comic performance is the perfect foil for Erica's leader-of-the-pack Peter.

Because of the potential danger when anyone tries to defy gravity -- ZFX carries a $3 million liability policy -- actors rehearse for hours.

Besides Reed, who choreographs every move the actors make to ensure their safety, the people most involved backstage are parents of the cast and crew. The flying actors have nothing to fear from their aerial acrobatics because positioned at the ends of their pulleys and ropes are their fathers.

Ignoring the backstage turmoil, these single-minded crew members never take their eyes off their progeny, following the director's instructions as though he were a ship's captain ushering their children into the last lifeboat. The rest of the parents were busy during rehearsal with other preparations: working on costumes, painting the set, and providing enough food to fuel a boatload of pirates and lost boys.

The 50-member cast handles 56 roles. Joining Erica, Ginny and Jamie in the air is sixth-grader Cole Bingham as younger brother Michael. The stage-bound cast also includes Ashley Burke as the adult Wendy, Steve Hill and Erin O'Keefe as her parents, and Morgan Reich as Liza, the maid.

The show, which is accompanied by the school orchestra, is directed by former school music teacher Kathleen Gabriele. Vocal music instructor Kerryanne Salisbury directs the orchestra. Students from the school and Severna Park High School are helping with the production and providing technical assistance.

This isn't the only play that requires the flying expertise of ZFX. Terry Kirsch, president of the southern California company, said, "There are tons of requests for our work. We do `The Wizard of Oz,' commercial spots and multiple church programs for Christmas and Easter.

"We're working on about five different Broadway shows right now," she said. ZFX provides flying technology for pageants, sporting events and corporate shows for chief executive officers who want to make memorable entrances.

The company boasts that it has never had an accident during the five years it has been incorporated, according to Kirsch.

The actual technology of of making people appear to fly hasn't changed in 200 years, she says. "Flying has been around since the Greeks flew their gods in ancient Greek theater." The size and duration of a job, and the type of organization determine the cost of hiring ZFX.

Prices vary from about $2,000 to $20,000 per customer. "We just did the national tour of Peter Pan, which lasted 2 1/2 years," says Kirsch, "and that cost thousands of dollars."

The school paid about $2,200.

"Peter Pan" performances will begin at 7 p.m. March 23, 24 and 25 at the school on Jumpers Hole Road. The March 25 matinee will begin at 2 p.m.

Tickets are $5 in advance and $7 at the door, and are available during the school week from 10: 30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the school. Tickets for children younger than sixth grade are discounted by $2. Ticket information: Cathy Hall, 410-384-9416.

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