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‘Ella Enchanted’ at Dallas Children’s Theater

Jim Hutchison • March 2019Theater Production • March 7, 2019

The spell of total obedience gets cast. Photo by Karen Almond

Lighting and Scenic Design Help Story Cast Its Spell on Viewers of All Ages

The entertainment choices in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex are supersized as Texas itself — anything you want to do, you can find someone making that happen, from the music scene of any genre to dance performances, art shows and most genres of theater. Many people are surprised when they discover this fact; there’s no shortage of theater companies in the DFW metro.

If you want to see something edgy, there are companies that specialize in the in-your-face guerilla theater. There are companies that produce the classic drama and crowd-pleaser comedies, as well as a LORT (League of Resident Theater) company, the Dallas Theater Center. Dallas also has a contemporary dance scene, ballet, and always has touring dance productions rolling through somewhere across the metro. Not surprising, Dallas also has a large offering for children’s theater. One of those with a reputation for excellence is Dallas Children’s Theater.

I recently had the pleasure of attending the Dallas Children’s Theater production of Ella Enchanted: The Musical, which ran in DCT’s 400-seat Baker Theater from Jan. 25 to Feb. 24, 2019. Ella Enchanted was written by Karen Zacarías, music by Deborah Wicks La Puma, and was adapted from the book by Gail Carson Levine. The storyline, performance, and design elements were entertaining and enjoyable for pretty much any age group, although the Theater recommended six years old and up. The production quality was outstanding — very much the same caliber mix of humor and story as you would find in most modern “fun for the whole family” movies. Dallas Children’s Theater also does a wonderful thing: it offers its repertoire to all audiences and produces a special group of performances in American Sign Language (ASL) and a Sensory Friendly performance of every production, where the production is technically adapted to accommodate audiences with sensory issues. (See sidebar, page 41.)

ETC Color Source fixtures throw color on the performers. Photo by Karen Almond

‡‡         Enchanting Tale, Effectively Lit

The story itself was quite charming, a unique take on the story of Cinderella. The main character, Ella of Frell, is born to parents who are “gifted” by a misguided fairy who casts a spell endowing their new baby with infallible obedience — and for Ella, this gift turns out to be more like a curse as she’s forced to hop on one foot all day and otherwise do the bidding of her antagonists. The story sees Ella grow from infant to adult, through the death of her mother and remarriage of her father to a selfish debutante with two equally selfish daughters, both that exploit Ella’s trait of unbreakable obedience.

The Reader’s Digest version of Ella Enchanted: The Musical would mention Ella rejecting her fate and vowing to break this lifestyle, outwitting her evil stepsisters, attending a finishing school, taking a journey, saving the prince, and living happily ever after. If you have children and have read Gail Carson Levine’s Newbery Honor book of the same name, the play teaches children the power of words with lots of dancing, singing, and laughter.

What struck me in this Dallas Children’s Theater production was the quality of the lighting design, the crispness of the audio mix, and the very high artistry of the minimal but impactful scenery. The scenic designer, Michelle Harvey from the University of Texas at Arlington, created a visually playful landscape that was as beautiful as it was breathtaking. Local Dallas lighting designer Aaron Johansen provided a design that enhanced the well-designed scenic elements while creating new worlds several times over throughout the whole venue.

Ella and the Ogres. Photo by Karen Almond

“We set out to extend the world of the play into the house, through the seating, and to very much involve the audience in the telling of the story,” says Johansen. “Michelle’s scenery was very powerful and set up the right look for each locale in the story. I designed the environment to accentuate the magic and mystery of each location for maximum enjoyment to every seat in the house.”

For many children’s theater productions, the lighting design feels as if it’s an afterthought. But Ella Enchanted had a rig full of effective technology that allowed the design team to transport the audience to colorful, textured worlds that were stunning to see. The lighting plot included a mix of high quality conventional and automated fixtures and accessories, including ETC Source Four ellipsoidals, Strand Fresnels, Altman Pars and a complement of LED wash fixtures along with ETC ColorSource Par and ETC ColorSource Linear Deep Blue units. These provided the ethereal color washes that the production relied on heavily for ambiance and environment.

Mixed in with the non-moving lighting fixtures was an automated lighting package that gave Johansen some powerful tricks for the cue stack. These included Vari-Lite VL2500 Spots, Martin MAC 2000 Performance Spots, and a bevy of Elation’s ZW19 Wash units. They worked together to provide bold colors, stark contrasts and theatrical magic geared to keep those young eyes focused on the action. And moving mirror fixtures added to the dynamic looks.

“I designed in several Rosco I-Cue units to help me in a couple of ways,” says Johansen. “The I-Cue units gave me the ability to have a multitude of refocusable specials above the stage, and I was able to utilize them as well to act as remote spotlights, controlled from the console. I love working with the I-Cue because it allows you to give that additional parameter of motion to a conventional special — they’re quite useful.” Johansen also used a complement of Morpheus M-Faders, which provided color blasts on either side of the stage to create beautiful, saturated washes that added depth and magic to the performers for this fairy tale story.

The wedding of Ella and the Prince. Photo by Karen Almond

Like other Dallas Children’s Theater productions, Ella Enchanted also makes use of Figure 53’s QLab 4 to coordinate and synchronize audio cues, lighting cues from the venue’s ETC Ion console, and video playback into one operator. This helped the production team keep Ella Enchanted tight, timely and professional.

Tailoring Performances for Children with Special Needs

One very touching aspect of each production at Dallas Children’s Theater is that a special performance in American Sign Language is prepared for hearing impaired audiences, and a separate special version of the production is created for children and any audience member on the Autism spectrum or any other disabilities that create sensory sensitivities. “The Sensory Friendly performance is a very special effort that Dallas Children’s Theater does for every show,” states Johansen. “We go in and look at every cue, every sound, and we take the bite out of anything that could be overwhelming to children with sensory sensitivities. Strobe cues are removed, sound levels are addressed in the event of a loud effect, and we always cue the house lights in at a level that gives the sensory audience a sense of security so they can enjoy the performance. We take a look at the entire show and make sure that we have created an effective storytelling experience for sensory-sensitive audience members. We want everyone to have an excellent experience, and this is very special work for us.”

Ella Enchanted: The Musical

Dallas Children’s Theater, Jan. 25-Feb. 24, 2019

Production Credits

  • Director: Nancy Schaffer
  • Music Coordinator: Pam Holcomb-McClain
  • Stage Manager: Dwight Sandell
  • Production Manager: Janel Villatoro
  • Scenic Designer: Michelle Harvey
  • Lighting Design: Aaron Johansen
  • Costume Design: Lyle Huchton
  • Master Electrician: Jason Monmaney
  • Assistant ME: Ziggy Renner
  • Props Designer: Lauren Wheat
  • Scenic Artist: Brian Longworth


Lighting Plots for Ella Enchanted at the Dallas Children’s Theater:

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