It's almost too easy to say that the Arvada Center's production of the Disney musical "Tarzan" won't mean a thing if it ain't got some swing.

Which is why flight director Geddy Webb is kneeling on stage, talking with choreographer Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck early one recent Friday evening. The dark-haired, focused dancer (who'll portray Leopard in the show) is suspended a couple of feet above the main stage floor.

Hilsabeck and the other performers who will arc above the jungle floor are in the second of four days of intensive flight training with Webb.

Choreographer Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck, center, works with director Gavin Mayer, left, as they block out the sequences where actors fly through the air on
Choreographer Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck, center, works with director Gavin Mayer, left, as they block out the sequences where actors fly through the air on vines during a rehearsal of "Tarzan."

The 32-year-old Ohio native has worked for Flying by Foy for seven years.

Founder Peter Foy died in 2005, but the company remains a leader in aerial performance. The Las Vegas-based outfit has done flight design and support for Broadway: "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" and "Mary Poppins," "American Idiot" and "Angels in America." And, yes, the original "Tarzan: The Musical," based on the 1999 animated feature — music by Phil Collins, book by David Henry Hwang — which opened in May 2006 and closed a respectable if disappointing 486 performances later.


Advertisement

Foy has also done "aereography" for awards shows, Vegas extravaganzas, cruise ships and theme parks. That word is a registered trademark. The rigs and harnesses, pulleys and pendulums are patented.

It's not the first time the company has aided a local production. In 2001, the outfit breezed into Aurora to aid Eaglecrest High's production of "Puck's Potion."

Chore0grapher Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck rehearsed her role of the leopard in the stage production of Tarzan at the Arvada Center.
Chore0grapher Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck rehearsed her role of the leopard in the stage production of Tarzan at the Arvada Center. (Photos by Karl Gehring, The Denver Post)

"Tarzan" is the first time in years Arvada has undertaken such a demandingly high-flying show. The last: "Peter Pan" productions put on with the help of, you guessed it, Foy. For "Tarzan, eight performers will take vines in their tight grip.

"Setting flight choreography and staging is a new experience for me," Hilsabeck said in an e-mail earlier in the week. "And, I am loving it,"

Unlike that most iconic aerial show, "Peter Pan," the "Tarzan" script leaves room for producing theaters to make decisions about movement.

So Hilsabeck described what she wanted to Webb and he broke down each move: what flier and flight operator need to know. In addition, "When the flying is happening, there is often choreography being done on the stage, so making sure those two elements enhance and support each other while keeping everyone safe is important," Hilsabeck added.

Brian Ogilvie, right, listens as consultant Geddy Webb helps rehearse the crew on how to safely use the vines.
Brian Ogilvie, right, listens as consultant Geddy Webb helps rehearse the crew on how to safely use the vines.

If fear of flying has been on the upswing theatrically, it may be because the accident-prone production of "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" made such news in 2010. A circus accident in Rhode Island in May, which left eight performers injured, also put aerial work in the wrong kind of spotlight.

Webb isn't fond of high-risk endeavors. An incident — even one that didn't happen on your watch — "affects everybody," he said. "Our job is to keep people safe. So when something happens and something wasn't safe, we have to re-examine what we're doing, we have to scrutinize that incident to see what we can learn from it."

Geddy Webb, right, helps actor Andrew Russell take his first flight using a vine on stage. Russell plays the role of Terk in the stage production of
Geddy Webb, right, helps actor Andrew Russell take his first flight using a vine on stage. Russell plays the role of Terk in the stage production of "Tarzan."

In his seven years, Webb has had only four encounters that forced him to wonder, "Why did you choose them if they were this scared of heights?"

For his part, director Gavin Mayer has done his due diligence. "I wasn't concerned because we really did go through résumés looking for people with flight experience, " he said.

Tarzan portrayer Brian Ogilvie understudied for Bert in Broadway's "Mary Poppins," a show flight-attended by Foy.

That production was bigger and computerized. Ogilvie marvels that the arcs and grand swings for this show will be done manually by trained flight operators.

"There's a whole extra level of this I hadn't seen before," he said. "It's exciting to think we're going to have that kind of teamwork where we can create the illusion of effortless flying just based on what we're able to do together."

Arvada resident Andrew Russell, who portrays Tarzan's gorilla buddy Terk, clocked his flight hours a little closer to home, at Elitch Gardens amusement park.

"We had a full-body harness. Whereas this is a belt harness. It goes around your waist and your legs and up over your shoulder," Russell said.

Isn't that a little binding, you may wonder?

"It was a little bit weird at first, I'll admit. Because it sits in between your legs. Needless to say, it goes up in areas where you don't really want it to go," he said. "Walking like a monkey comes in handy."

Foy director Webb's job is to plan so well that the effects don't look, well, planned. Director Mayer's job is to strike the delicate balance between spectacle and storytelling.

"I think the audience will enjoy the spectacle, but they want to walk out feeling like they connected with the show," he said.

For that, he's taking time to emphasize Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs' still-resonant tale of an orphaned boy, his adoptive mother and a jungle book full of conflicted emotions, outcast hankerings and love.

Crying and flying? That could be di-vine.

Lisa Kennedy: 303-954-1567, lkennedy@denverpost.com

"TARZAN: THE STAGE MUSICAL." Music and lyrics by Phil Collins. Book by David Henry Hwang. Based on the Disney film. Directed by Gavin Mayer. Featuring Brian Ogilvie, Jennifer Lorae, Shannan Steele, Laurence Curry and Colin Alexander. July 11 through Aug. 3. Runtime 2 hrs, 20 minutes. At the Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Blvd. Arvada. Tickets ​$53 - $73 via arvadacenter.org or 720-898-7200