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‘Sirens of TI’ cast enjoys camaraderie

Fireworks are to Vegas what the fat lady is to opera: Once you see them, you know the show’s over.

And as white sparks shoot into the sky above Treasure Island on a recent Wednesday night, hundreds of people crammed in front of Sirens Cove take their cue and leave.

The cannons were fired. Swords clashed. Cheesy lines were hurled across the bay before the Bull ship sank for its 7,440th time. The sirens lured the pirates onto their vessel, made them do a choreographed love-slave dance and then whisked them away to wherever your imagination takes them.

It’s as good an ending as any for a show. But for "Sirens of TI," it’s far from over. While the audience walks away buzzing about the performance, the cast and crew gear up to do it all over again. And again. And again. Four times total in one night, weather permitting.

It’s a testament to the professionalism of this motley bunch that they can perform an 18-minute show — with pyrotechnics, a sinking ship, stunts, music, dancing, swimming — and then raise the ship, prime the explosives, dry off, change costumes and freshen makeup so they can repeat everything 45 minutes later. And squeeze in a rehearsal and dinner, too.

"I think when people see the show, they don’t think of what goes into it or what these kids do," says production manager Kim Cornell-Lyle.

A typical night backstage might not be as entertaining as the show itself, but it’s certainly enlightening. The cast arrives an hour before the 7 p.m. performance. After they clock in and get their assigned roles for the night, they use the time to "put on our game faces," says pirate Jamey Gustafson, 40.

He joined "Sirens" in 2005, but from 1998 to 2003, he played a pirate in the original show, which depicted a battle between British sailors and pirates. His role on this Wednesday is to operate a spotlight. The cast is trained in a variety of roles, even production jobs. That’s one of the things that makes "Sirens" different from every other Strip production show: The cast can be the crew, and they do their own maintenance, too.

Gustafson, who has a degree in public relations, hired on with Treasure Island as a marketing coordinator in the ’90s. One day, he saw a poster advertising auditions for the pirate show. A native of land-bound Kansas City, Mo., Gustafson felt the call of the sea, he says. Mostly he wanted the excuse to grow his hair out and jump around on what he calls a "jungle gym that explodes every 30 minutes."

Many of the 16 sirens and 14 pirates either have college degrees or are working toward one. They have to plan for an eventual end to their performing careers, Cornell-Lyle says.

Las Vegan Brian Kehoe, 36, got a teaching degree. He first auditioned for the original pirate show when he was a student at Eldorado High School, but wasn’t cast until he turned 21. He still had plans to teach, but after doing an internship, Kehoe says he realized he is more comfortable acting like a kid than teaching one.

Kehoe has effectively grown up as a pirate and couldn’t imagine doing anything else. He thought he might have to after the original pirate show was canceled to make way for "Sirens of TI" in 2003.

When Las Vegas underwent its metamorphosis from family destination back to adult Disneyland, Treasure Island abandoned the sailor versus pirate format and opted for a sexed-up production show. That decision proved to be a bit controversial, as every pirate and siren can attest. The British sailors wore redcoats; sirens wear hot pants. Some fans preferred the family-friendly version while others liked the more risque battle of the sexes.

"We get asked all the time, ‘When are you going back to the old pirate show?’ " says siren Anna Cooke, 40.

That’s not happening anytime soon, if ever, says Michelle Knoll, vice president of communications and marketing for Treasure Island. The old kid-friendly pirate show doesn’t fit the hotel’s demographic now.

That question often leads to another one: "What’s a siren?" A lot of people think it’s a mermaid, Cooke says, but it’s actually a mythological creature that hypnotized sailors with their voices and lured them ashore, sometimes crashing their ships on the rocks.

"We do lots of luring during the show," Cooke says.

Cooke, who has a bachelor’s degree in English and literature, started with the show in 2005. Slim and fit, she performs some of the more difficult stunts done by the women.

"What do you do with an English degree?" she sings in the sirens’ dressing room while waiting for curtain call. Her cast mates laugh; Cooke is known as a backstage jester. An avid reader, she has hooked her cast mates on several books, most recently a series called "Outlander."

"She got us hooked on the ‘Twilight’ series," says siren Teresa Baker, 38.

They even went to see the movies together, which isn’t unusual. When they’re not at work, the women often hang out together. Doggy birthday parties are their thing right now, says siren Mindy Memory, 30.

The cast and crew are like a close-knit family, they say. Pirates have even married sirens. Rhett Noseck, while playing the captain five years ago, stopped in the middle of a performance and proposed to Tara Taylor. She said yes.

While the cast members have varied backgrounds — siren Stacey Kane, 33, was a cheerleader for the Oakland Raiders; Kehoe planned to be a high school math teacher — they have one thing in common: stunts.

"Sirens" is a live action stunt show, Cornell-Lyle says. The guys jump off of a sinking ship and dangle as high as 80 feet in the air from harnesses. The women zip down cables as high as 40 feet. It’s dangerous and exhilarating.

It’s also a physically demanding job, requiring many of the men to dive from 40 feet in the air. During the show, the pirates swim from their sinking ship to the sirens’ ship. The cast overall has avoided serious injury, but Kehoe hurt his neck when a pirate fell on him in the water. Another pirate banged his head on a piece of equipment while swimming across the bay. It opened a giant gash in his forehead.

Ask any of them what they find most challenging about the show and almost the entire cast will give the same answer: "the cold."

During the winter, the water can be as cold as 40 degrees, and while some of the men wear wet suits, others elect not to. For several months, Cooke was the only siren who ended up in the water during the show, performing a stunt that carried her overboard with a pirate. Even though she stopped doing that more than a year ago, Cooke still has an appreciation for what the pirates go through nightly.

"I think they deserve hazard pay for it," she says.

Contact reporter Sonya Padgett at spadgett@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4564.

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