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Stomping grounds

Times Staff Writer

When the angry, life-size mama T. rex came roaring through a curtain to defend its young during the St. Paul, Minn., run of “Walking With Dinosaurs -- the Live Experience,” Kristi Curry Rogers momentarily stopped thinking like a professor and responded like a protective mom herself.

“I have a 5-year-old daughter, and at that moment I thought, ‘I’m really glad she didn’t come with me,’ ” said the dinosaur expert from Macalester College in St. Paul, who was there to apply the cool eye of science to one of America’s hottest entertainment tours. “The adults gasped, and almost all the young children started crying.”

Since last summer, what’s likely the BIGGEST cast ever to command a spotlight has roamed America’s arenas, to the accompaniment of smoke, sound, light effects and dramatic music -- and a fact-filled narration by an actor-ringmaster playing the part of a paleontologist.

Starting Wednesday, the 42-foot-long T. rex and nine mobile giant dinosaurs will make their Southern California debut with 10 performances at the Honda Center in Anaheim; a seven-show Staples Center engagement runs Sept. 25 to 28. At the controls are a driver at the bottom of each creature, and two-member teams of high-tech puppeteers stationed in a booth high above the floor. Five smaller carnivores that round out the cast are inhabited by realistically dinosaur-suited actors who have no intention of being confused with Barney.

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For natural history museums, it may be a bit discomfiting to have traditional displays of fossilized remains potentially upstaged by fully fleshed-out facsimiles that do a lot more than just stand there.

“I’m sure some rational-thinking scientists think it’s a bad thing,” said William Brown, president of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. But he is happy to see an “edutainment” spectacle like “Walking With Dinosaurs” pack families into sports arenas for dramatic lessons in evolutionary biology.

The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, a bastion of traditional dinosaur research and exhibitions, has decided to embrace rather than shun the newfangled competition. Discounts to the Staples Center performances are available at the museum, in Exposition Park, and “Walking With Dinosaurs” attendees can get reduced museum admission through year’s end by presenting their ticket stubs.

What’s more, as an educational tool, the L.A. museum independently has introduced a dinos-gone-mobile attraction of its own, called “Dinosaur Encounters.” Costumed versions of a young triceratops and a 14-foot-long baby T. rex recently made their debuts, inhabited and operated by actor-puppeteers who demonstrate what’s known about the creatures’ behavior.

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The presentations, billed as a first for a North American museum, are limited to 20 minutes because the heavy dinosaur suits tax the actors’ endurance.

“Of course it’s fun, but that’s not really the ultimate goal,” said Luis Chiappe, the paleontologist who heads the museum’s Dinosaur Institute. “It’s engaging [visitors] to see other things in the museum and experience the real thing.” As for the cross-promotional tie with “Walking With Dinosaurs -- the Live Experience,” Chiappe said, it doesn’t mean that the museum is vouching for the touring show’s scientific authority. When big dinosaur doings are afoot in L.A., he feels it’s logical for the museum to be in the picture because “we are the dinosaur reference of this town.”

The “Walking With Dinosaurs” arena show, created and launched in Australia, is loosely based on the 1999 BBC television series of the same name. Tailoring a story was the job of director Scott Faris, who had made a name for himself in the world of mega-effects stage productions.

His credits include 1990s Las Vegas shows built around Michael Crawford and Siegfried & Roy and a George Lucas tribute in Japan complete with a landing of the Millennium Falcon spaceship from “Star Wars.” More recently he had staged foreign touring productions of the musical “Chicago,” and he dreamed of getting a directing break on Broadway.

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Two years ago, Faris went to Melbourne, Australia, to hear the dinosaur producers’ pitch. They introduced him to the first creature made for the $20-million show, a hulking, horned torosaurus.

“It was love at first sight,” said the director, who grew up in Brea and whose boyhood passion for dinosaurs led to numerous visits to the fossil halls at L.A.'s Natural History Museum. “They were taking it through its paces, and it was mind-boggling.”

Faris’ main challenge was to make “Walking With Dinosaurs” a show with characters rather than just a parade of prehistoric monsters. Soon, he found himself playing pretend with the show’s music composer and scenic designer, as if they were 7-year-olds acting out their dino-fantasies. “We were creating what the story could be, so you could build scenes with action rising to a climax, and a resolution.”

Meanwhile, Sonny Tilders, an Australian special-effects expert whose credits include engineering the monsters seen in “Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith,” was overseeing the dinosaur building. He and his 55-member assembly team devised ways to make Lycra and paint look like reptilian skin and to line it with beanbag-like material that produces the illusion of muscles rippling as the creatures move. They formed steel skeletons light enough to allow each dinosaur to be powered by a motorized cart, like a float in the Rose Parade.

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As with any live performance, especially one with elaborate mechanical systems and remote-control technology, there’s a risk that things can go wrong -- and the challenge of improvising when they do.

Last year, during the first week of performances in Australia, Faris said, one of the torosauruses that was supposed to charge another in a duel of heavily armored heads went dead and had to be wheeled off by technicians. The actor-ringmaster went into crowd-pleasing patter about how the creature had become “frozen with fear,” then declared its rival victorious “after a terrific battle.”

“The audience cheered,” he said. “They like being in on a unique, one-time thing.”

Tilders, the creatures’ chief designer, said that a learn-by-doing process has built confidence in the dinosaurs’ capabilities. Now an identical set is nearing completion in Australia, so “Walking With Dinosaurs,” which has reaped more than $50 million in ticket sales, can start another touring company.

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From her arena seat in St. Paul, Kristi Curry Rogers, the paleontology professor, found some bones to pick. The stegosaurus and taurosauruses seemed a tad steroidal: “It is a big dinosaur, but it isn’t school-bus-sized.” Ditto for the three voracious utahraptors.

On the other hand, the brachiosaurus, biggest-in-show at 36 feet high and 56 feet long, struck Rogers as substantially undersized -- and the way it carried its head high, “like a giraffe,” seemed more in tune with outdated popular depictions of the treetop-grazing herbivores than with the latest research, which envisions them more horizontal than vertical.

She found the mechanized dinosaurs rather slow and lumbering -- “a little archaic in their movement, because in general, we now think dinosaurs were all very active and agile creatures.”

But, Rogers said, “it’s almost impossible for somebody creating a show like this to keep up with the science, because it changes all the time.”

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All in all, she gives “Walking With Dinosaurs -- the Live Experience” a thumbs-up as “an engrossing experience for people who like dinosaurs.” Even the tearful little ones seemed to recover nicely from the mother T. rex’s fearsome entrance, she said. “I don’t want to give it away, but in the scariest moments there’s something funny that happens quickly that makes them laugh. They were all happy at the end, walking out and buying dinosaur paraphernalia.”

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mike.boehm@latimes.com


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