Both Santa Claus and Dolly Parton had a few surprises up their sleeves at the Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, TN, this holiday season, where ambition was the name of the game. It's been 20 years since the gates at Dollywood opened for the first time, and this year's annual Smoky Mountain Christmas Festival was headlined by the most elaborate stage show in the park's history — a never-before-seen adaptation of the holiday classic Babes in Toyland.
The show's executive producer and Dollywood's director of entertainment, Paul T. Couch, first came up with the idea of doing a version of Babes in Toyland in 2003, during his first Christmas at the family adventure land. “Our goal was to have an anchor Christmas show that had some bigger marquee recognition — along the lines of Nutcracker or A Christmas Carol — but that was also unique to Dollywood and that would speak to the Dollywood audience,” he explains.
Two years in the making, the production held audiences in awe with its giant 8'×6'×14' menacing toy spider that explodes through the back wall of the toy shop and is defeated by an army of 21 iconic toy soldiers — 16 of which are fully animated — ranging in height from 50" to 15', created by Animax Designs of Nashville. But the surprises don't end there. At the show's conclusion, a flying machine takes off from the stage, flies to the back of the theatre, and turns 180 before returning to land on the stage again. The airborne finale was designed and created by engineers at Flying by Foy in Las Vegas, with technical installation supervised for Dollywood by Toby Wagner, manager of technical operations, and Joel Bruce, the show's lead technician.
These scenic elements presented quite a few challenges for the production due to very limited fly space in the 1,700-seat Celebrity Theatre — which ran the production up to five times a day on some days — at a park that typically produces only single-set shows.
“The theatre has an odd configuration, with three downstage fly lines that allow us to fly completely in and out, and that's it,” says Couch. “So everything else has to be dead-hung, and when you're thinking in terms of scene changes, they have to be done pretty much either from stage left or stage right, and they have to travel or roll. You don't have the luxury of just being able to fly complete set pieces or backdrops in and out. For the big productions we do, we try to make them work around a single set with no significant scene changes, whereas Babes In Toyland has many scene changes,” Couch observes. “When you're sitting in the theatre, from the audience's perspective, it appears to function just like any other fully rigged, fully equipped theatre. Backstage, we know that it's a very cleverly designed set that allows us to do a lot of things in a very small amount of space.”
Chicago-based Alan Donahue designed the very intricate multiple-scene set to work in the constrained theatre where everything needed to work in relation to the trio of fly lines that only went out to the first 3' of the proscenium.
“The major issue was trying to discover what we could do to use the space available, and the house itself has very wide sightlines, so the use of the extremes of the stage as side stages just made perfect sense to us, and we were able to expand the action that way,” Donahue explains. “I worked to expand and take the look of the show out and beyond the proscenium and out over the sides to create the spaces that allowed us to flow that way and then to use the space directly above the proscenium arch as my end space, so that we could change into the larger sets upstage using track scenery.”
There are five sets that are used several times throughout the production, starting off in a small Tennessee village, then on to Toyland, back to the village, back to Toyland, into the Spider Forest, to the toymaker's workshop, and then finally into the Christmas tree forest, before returning to the village at the conclusion. “It was a very ambitious amount of rigging for what Dollywood was used to in that theatre,” Donahue adds.
In addition, the lighting plot created by Nashville-based lighting designer Scott Leathers had to be done fairly early. The rig had to be hung in September because the room was booked beyond that until the tech process began. Once plot was up — with a mix of Strand 2205 and 2206 Lekolite zoom ellipsoidals; various ETC Source Four ellipsoidals; 1kW PAR64s with WFL, MFL, and NSP lenses; 10" 2kW Fresnels with 8" Barn Doors; Wybron scrollers; Selecon Aurora 4-way Square Cyc; CCT Starlette Cyc Lights; High End Systems Cyberlights and Intellabeams; and Martin MAC 600s — it was also used to light the productions that went on in the Celebrity Theatre until the end of October before Babes opened on November 4. The show ran on a Flying Pig Systems Hog 1000 console.
“At the time that I picked my color palette, I had not seen any costume renderings,” Leathers notes. “I had seen Alan's renderings, which were gorgeous, and I had seen some of the animatronics colors, and I called our director, Curt Wollan, and had a conversation with him and chose colors from there. Everybody is sort of familiar with Babes In Toyland — it starts off sad and ends happy — and we never wanted to go super sad because it's a family-oriented show. So even when you try to do sad or scary moments, you don't want to cross that line where children are truly frightened.”
The original 1903 Victor Herbert operetta spans four hours in length, but for Dollywood, the goal was to keep the show less than an hour while retaining all of the common icons of the archetypical Herbert masterpiece. “One of our big tasks in determining what our Babes In Toyland was going to be was to go back and figure out what the really important points and story images and icons are that really define the production,” Couch states. “The playwright, David Bell from New York City, went out and bought literally a dozen different adaptations of the original show, and they all claimed they were adapted from the original, but they were so different — just wildly across the spectrum different — and there was so just much material to draw from, and we had a lot of freedom to use what we thought we needed that was imaginative and fun and important to create that emotional connection with our audience, and the freedom to discard things that weren't going to help us or that we just didn't need or took up too much time.”
Dollywood's version does not feature any video, but it does have two songs from the original and five adapted songs, written by musical director Tom McBryde and Janet MacMahan, both based in Nashville. A 66-piece orchestra, also in Nashville, pre-recorded the score, orchestrated and produced by Dave Patton, with eight tracks playing in the house during the show.
“While the show is a known quantity and has had some very famous representations performed, it's not overdone so much. Having just experienced the mounting of our own production, it's easier to understand why it's not done all that often,” Couch sums up. “It's a big show to do, and there are lots and lots of details in it and lots of elements.”