Karla Hughes has sung on some of the country’s most prestigious stages. Rob Jones has danced at Disney World and Opryland USA.
But neither had flown — at least not on stage — until now.
Hughes and Jones, the lead actors in the La Crosse Community Theatre’s production of “Mary Poppins,” took flight for the first time Wednesday night, with assistance from a flying apparatus and two trusted stage hands.
The production, which opens Sept. 5, will mark the first time anyone has been airborne in a LCT production.
“We didn’t have the capacity” at the Fifth Avenue theater that the company called home until 2013, said Greg Parmeter, the company’s artistic director.
After moving into the new Weber Center for Performing Arts, Parmeter said a show with aerobatics was a top priority. The company considered “Peter Pan,” but was first offered the rights to the Richard and Robert Sherman musical based on the P.L. Travers book and Disney film.
With its flying nanny, magic tricks and swift scene changes, the production is not without challenges, which were solved with a revolving stage, drop-in and, of course, the flying apparatus.
“It’s the most technically demanding show we’ve done,” Parmeter said.
And the most expensive.
But with help from Dahl Automotive, the theater company hired the special effects company ZFX to install an apparatus and teach them to fly.
It was the show that attracted both leads.
Jones, who directs the Grand River Singers and has previously appeared in only one LCT production, said the role of Bert the chimney sweep was one of six on his “bucket list to do before I get too old.”
He credits Dick Van Dyke’s performance in the 1964 Disney film as well as the role itself.
“Bert is a character everyone should aspire to be,” Jones said. “He’s a guardian angel.”
Hughes, a professional opera singer and instructor at Viterbo University, said she was drawn to the opportunity to leave the ground.
“That was the reason I auditioned,” she said. “I heard they were flying.”
She quelled her mild fear of heights by combing through ZFX’s website and reminding herself “I’m gonna be OK.”
After gliding across the stage 10 feet off the ground several times, Hughes declared herself comfortable in the hands of lift operator David Bornitz and travel operator Sara Adams, who control her flight path using off-stage pulleys.
Never mind that neither of them had flown anyone until several hours earlier when flying director Rebecca Knipfer showed them the ropes, so to speak.
It helps that they have no other responsibilities.
“Rule No. 1,” Knipfer said. “Keep her safe.”
After a couple of practice runs, the remainder of the 33-member cast, now in their sixth week of rehearsal, filled into the theater.
Hughes, umbrella and carpetbag in hand, glided across the stage to gasps and applause.
“I’ve seen a horsefly. I’ve seen a dragonfly,” one member quipped, riffing on the line from the movie “Dumbo.”
“But I’ve never seen a Mary fly.”