Dinosaurs and Storytelling

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

Before the onslaught of fall theater openings I thought we'd leave the intimacy of local theater and go big . . . really, really big. Like T. Rex big.

Of course, I'm talking about Walking with Dinosaurs - billed as an "arena spectacular" - it's coming to Staples Center this weekend.

Welcome to the world of spectacle and edutainment - god I hate that word! First the spectacle - the dinosaurs are amazing. The show is based on the BBC-TV show of the same name and is basically like going to a cross between a sedate monster truck rally and the natural history museum. A major sports arena is turned into a really deep three-quarter thrust ‘stage' and these colossal, 40-foot tall, motorized dinosaurs fill the place, accompanied by the fact-filled but dramatically inert monologue of our paleontologist guide.

Basically, it's a gigantic puppet show with really expensive and massive animatronic puppets. The stage craft that brings these dinosaurs to life is breathtaking....the creatures are intricate and surprisingly supple. Little details like moisture around the eyes sells the illusion. It's the technology we're used to seeing at the movies...but presented live.

Walking with Dinosaurs is plagued with the classic dilemma of the Hollywood starlet: After you've wowed them with your entrance, what do you do next? Me and several thousand middle school students came expecting, at least unconsciously, a little blood. After all, we're in a massive sports arena where they play hockey. The trouble with having puppets that cost as much as a house is you don't want to wreck them. But the biggest drama during the hour and forty minutes are the crescendo's of the John Williamsesque score. While two dinosaurs circle each other in a non-fighting kind of fight, the music is continually announcing -- This is frightening! This is important! -- until one beast slinks away, supposedly defeated.

The seven-year-old with the foam dinosaur hat behind me had the best dramaturgical note of the night, "Daddy, which one is the good one and which one is the bad one?" He got to the heart of any show, whether it's a $20 million arena spectacular or a shoestring production in a storefront, it all comes down to storytelling.

For an arena filled with children, the audience was remarkably quiet until the very end. The ultimate showdown is a baby T-Rex who's cornered by two nasty dinosaurs. Suddenly, the mommy T-Rex -- massive and bellowing -- comes to the rescue and scares them off. Interestingly it wasn't the spectacle of the victory that drew the only applause of the night. It was what happened right after: a touching nuzzle from the mother T-Rex to her child.

If you have a seven-year-old or feel like one, Walking with Dinosaurs plays at the Staples Center through Sunday.

For info on the show text the word "Curtain" to 69866.

Where do you come down on the spectacle versus story telling debate? Join the conversation at KCRW.com/theater.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

Tickets for STAPLES Center ($39-$79.00) can be purchased at the Staples Center Box Office, all Ticketmaster outlets, charge by phone 213-480-3232 or online at ticketmaster.com. For groups, contact the local arena directly. For more information, please visit www.dinosaurlive.com

Banner image: Joan Marcus