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"Jesus Christ,' It Was Smoky!

Holy smoke-or, at least, the smoke surrounding Jesus of Nazareth-has filled the Ford Center for the Performing Arts since "Jesus Christ, Superstar" held its first preview there Thurs., March 23. Although Actors' Equity Association claims there is no problem with the revival's use of the smoke, it has been thick enough to bring firefighters to the theatre more than once.

Four fire trucks arrived at the theatre's 43rd Street entrance around 9:10 pm during the first preview, after a lobby smoke detector reacted to the clouds of smoke billowing from the stage during the first act finale. The firefighters milled around on the sidewalk and conferred with backstage staff for about 10 minutes, then climbed back in their trucks and left the scene, apparently satisfied that there was no immediate peril to persons or property.

The scene was repeated less than an hour later, when the smoke detector reacted to smoke used for the second act finale.

A performer, speaking after the performance on condition of anonymity, said that the fog effect is making some cast members' throats sore, but a press spokesperson for the show said no actors have missed a performance or filed a complaint with Actors' Equity because of it. Equity Executive Director Alan Eisenberg verified that performers "had not notified us" about excessive smoke, and said the union checked out the situation Wed., March 29, after it received inquiries from Back Stage.

"A staff member went over to the theatre," Eisenberg said in a voice-mail message. "The company [of actors] didn't seem to be distressed about it when we went."

Calling the smoke issue "a non-story," Eisenberg acknowledged that "there had been a day or two where there was a great deal of smoke onstage which everybody realized had to be-and was-cut back."

He also said, "We have seen many, many, many shows that had a lot more smoke. That's hardly a test for if it's too much or too little, but we are satisfied that the amount onstage is not unusual or extraordinary or too much for the company."

It's the Pits

Eisenberg is correct in that "Superstar" is hardly alone in using the smoke effect. It is commonly used in Broadway musicals and even, although less often, in plays; Dame Edna enters to a cloud of it in her one-person show. The increasing use of smoke has led Equity, the League of American Theatres and Producers, and Local 802 (the musicians' union) to study its possible health risks. Since 1998, Dr. Jacqueline Moline of Mt. Sinai Hospital has spearheaded the study-conducted with Environ, a California-based consulting firm-with data on some 500 actors and stage managers. Moline now says she expects the results, originally scheduled for release last December, to come out this month.

Although she would not provide any details of the study's findings in advance of its release, she did say that it "found no life-threatening problems."

The study looked at the two more common types of fog effects: "smoke," which is usually produced by mixing glycol alcohols or glycerin with water and suspending the mixture in the air; and "haze," which is produced by suspending high-grade mineral oil. (Other options, less commonly used in professional theatre productions, are liquid nitrogen; misted plain water; and heated ammonium chloride-the effect used for the original Broadway production of "Jesus Christ, Superstar" in 1971, but now considered dirty and old-fashioned.)

Moline told Back Stage that "about 95" performers were examined before and after acting in scenes with fog and smoke, and that special attention was paid to where the actors were and what kind of action they were undertaking while breathing the stuff.

David Lennon of Local 802 told Back Stage he disagrees with Eisenberg's assessment that smoke on Broadway is a non-story, and pointed out that musicians are often trapped for hours in the pit, where treated air/alcohol mixtures (or ammonium chloride particles) are likely to settle. Some productions have "air-curtain systems" to keep the fog from seeping into the pit, but the majority do not-at least, so far. That may change with the release of Moline's study.

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