Spring Mountain Ranch takes steps to improve sloppy sound system

Aural fixation describes the situation.

Performers and patrons know that the sound system at Spring Mountain Ranch State Park -- which should underscore but often undermines Super Summer Theatre productions -- needs aural surgery.

"A lot of shows were hugely damaged that didn't need to be," says Phil Shelburne, director of P.S. Productions, a local community theater group that often stages shows at the Ranch, most recently "Buddy -- The Buddy Holly Story," one of the productions he says "took a hit" soundwise.

Super Summer Theatre -- visually appealing as people gather at dusk, food and family in tow, backdropped by Red Rock Canyon -- is often aurally appalling.

"Sound issues have adversely affected shows," Shelburne says, "affected performances, affected enthusiasm, affected attitude and credibility for performers and staff and ultimately, the audience."

They've noticed -- complaints aren't uncommon -- as have critics. Reviewing July's "West Side Story," R-J critic Anthony Del Valle wrote:

"The music so overwhelms the vocals that you sometimes wonder if this was meant to be a concert. The sound mix problems rarely cease. A quintet nearly sounds like a solo. During a male choral number, we hear only the harmony line. An actor's heavy breathing following a dance number drowns out the dialogue that other actors are trying to engage in."

Sloppy sound-mixing, missed mike cues, actors who can't hear themselves act, booming music running over singers like a freight train over a sparrow -- all can cause patrons to pay less attention to the play onstage than the potato salad in their coolers.

"Sound can make or break a show," says Leslie Fotheringham, artistic director of Signature Productions, which most often mounts productions at the indoor Summerlin Library Performing Arts Center and joins the summer slate at the Ranch. Last season, they performed "Aida" at the Ranch and stage "Once on This Island," opening there tonight.

"In Summerlin, if there's a missed cue and someone's microphone isn't on you can still hear the person. But at the Ranch, it's devastating. The first 10 people in the audience can hear it, but farther back, you just see someone's mouth moving. Then it comes down to the ear of who's mixing it. If the sound operator doesn't have a good ear to balance the orchestra and vocals, you've got a problem there too."

But all the sounding off over sound might soon be silenced.

Last season, the Super Summer Theatre board of directors replaced an outdated sound board at a cost of $18,000, culled from donations.

"It added a depth we hadn't had," says Christy Miller, the board's production chairperson. "We brought in a few front fills (speakers), which allow you to get a better all-around sound as opposed to the two speakers we have up above and then the fills we have out in the meadow. The middle space doesn't get a lot of great sound, and the fills did that for us."

Technologically, a triumph. But people must master the machinery, and the sound designer of the past seven seasons didn't.

"When we got the new (sound) board, he just didn't have the knowledge on it," Miller says. "It was frustrating for him and everyone."

Now a new designer -- Katherine Gonzalez, who has worked with Shelburne and Fotheringham in Summerlin and in the tech crew at House of Blues -- is at the sound controls, having taken over for the final "West Side Story" performances.

Both directors approve. "We love her, she has done a lot to spruce it up and make it better," Fotheringham says. Adds Shelburne: "It's a huge step in the right direction."

Another is uprooting the sound booth from the back of the meadow and moving it into the middle of the aural action.

"We've tried to get that done for a long time," Shelburne says. "When you're that much higher above the audience, the sound is different than when you're on the ground. When you put it in the meadows so you're hearing the same thing the audience is, you've got a lot better chance to get that show mixed properly."

Nontechie issues were additional obstacles: inadequate communication and collaboration -- "conflict," for short -- between directors and the ex-sound designer.

"There was some of that," Fotheringham says. "There's always problems when a designer thinks they know everything and are not open to change."

Miller acknowledges some acrimony, but adds: "The director needs to be clear on what they want. And we're getting better on technical rehearsal nights, we're making sure we're addressing everything from audio to lighting to staging to backstage movement."

Giving props to the Ranch -- as in expressions of approval, not a fake sword from a fight scene -- Shelburne and Fotheringham are grateful for the aural course corrections.

"We are very optimistic," Fotheringham says, "that the sound for 'Once on This Island' is going to be really good."

What an aural sensation.

Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0256.