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After the curtain closes: Packing up Stomp Out Loud

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Photo: Tom Donoghue/www.donoghuephotography.com

When the curtain closes on a show for the last time and the cast members take their final bows, something dies inside a theater. With the last of the applause and the raising of the house lights the spirit of a show is sucked right out of the walls, sets and stage it has imbued with life.

In the case of Stomp Out Loud, this sudden death was particularly graphic. In the days immediately following the production’s closing at Planet Hollywood the ordinary objects that had decked the walls, ceilings and set of the $28 million theater go back to being what they are. The broom is just a broom. The car door is a car door. Other than a few one-of-a-kind pieces to be preserved, the hubcaps, road signs and scrap metal that had found a reincarnation in the theater end up where they started out, in a dumpster in a back alley – refuse once more.

Stomp loads out

“It took months to acquire all this stuff,” says Mike Martin, looking around the Stomp Theater at the collection of found objects that were affixed to the walls in a careful game of reverse Jenga. “My biggest challenge right now is keeping empty dumpsters.”

It’s 9 a.m. and Martin, dressed in jeans, a Cahart brand button-down shirt and a gray winter hat, is already hours into work. A crew is dismantling the scaffolding that makes up the skeleton of Stomp’s set. Piece by piece, the frame comes down like a giant Tinkertoy creation, a row of gloved hands gripping, turning and slowly maneuvering the massive bars, while directions peppered with jokes are shouted across the stage.

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“This is fun for me,” Martin says of breaking the set apart or “load out” in theater speak. “There’s more to figure out here than running the show on a daily basis.”

As set designer and production supervisor of Stomp Out Loud, Martin is the man who put this giant puzzle together. He arrived in Vegas before the theater itself was fully built and worked until it became Stomp, from the edges of the lobby to the tip-top of the set. Martin’s hand is everywhere – in the vintage Aladdin hotel-casino signs that the work crews saved for him as they transitioned the property and in the welded on platforms that abut the front of the stage. Much of what audiences remember from the show’s setting is the product of his imagination and his experience.

A decade-plus Stomp veteran, Martin spent years touring with the show, setting it up and breaking it down all over the country and the world.

“When you do South America you send one (set) down the Atlantic and one down the Pacific, because the trucks can’t get over the Andes,” he says.

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Mike Martin (right) stops to chat with the crew. "This is our professional family," he says of the Stomp Out Loud cast and crew.

After spending 10 years on tour, Martin’s not only an expert in making the production fit into theaters of all shapes and sizes, but he’s also a walking travel guide. “You pick a city, I’ll give you a good bar, a good restaurant and a good bookstore,” he says laughing.

When he arrived in Las Vegas to help design and build Stomp Out Loud, something just clicked.

“When we first started I never envisioned I’d end up staying,” Martin says, “but we created something so special … I wanted to make sure it had every chance of surviving.”

Less than two years later, he’s taking it all apart.

Martin and his crews have three weeks to restore the theater to its unadulterated form, so a new production, The Peep Show, can move in. No trucks hanging from the walls, no giant jungle gym, not even screw and nail holes in the hallways. Working among the regular house crew are guest crews from other Vegas shows, a few Stomp out-of-towners and even some Stomp Out Loud performers and cast members from other Strip shows.

“Some of my Stompers fit into the unskilled labor category,” Martin jokes.

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“Two days ago I was onstage,” says Keith “Wildchild” Middleton, a Stomp performer who’s been with the company since 1995. Wearing work gloves, he and fellow Stomper Carlos Thomas are charged with taking the brackets called “cheeseburgers” off the trusses that make up much of the set.

Thomas wrestles with one of the brackets, before proclaiming it stuck.

“You’re twisting it the wrong direction,” comes the answer from a crew member with a “skilled” designation.

“That last show … it was really hard to do,” Middleton says. “You see a garbage can, you put trash in it. I see it in a different light. That’s my livelihood.”

Soon, he’ll be leaving town to join a Stomp production in Portugal. For the next few days, however, Middleton’s getting paid for manual labor instead of making beats.

Not that he’s contributing all that much. “I’m not a handy dude at all,” he says, swinging his long dreadlocks out of his face. “I have trouble making eggs.”

Teasingly, Martin goads him back to work, and the two banter back and forth for a moment before Martin is called away on his walkie-talkie to attend to one of the issues that constantly pop up during load out.

The relationship between the cast and crew is more than friendly; it’s symbiotic.

“It’s all about the music,” Martin says. “I just help that out. The set just furthers what the performers want to do.”

A former theater professor and roadhouse manager, Martin says he was attracted to Stomp in part for its universal appeal. “This is just sheer joy. It’s music. It’s comedy. I can drop it down anywhere in the world and put a smile on somebody’s face.”

After 13 years working with the production, his enthusiasm doesn’t seem to have waned in the slightest.

“There was a moment in the last show that was like, ‘This is really sad.’ But I’m not thinking the show is dead,” he says. “I’m thinking it’s going away for a little while.”

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And that’s just what’s happening to most of the vital physical components that make up Stomp Out Loud’s set and theater. While the easily replaceable items are dumpster bound, the larger building blocks are heading to a warehouse in Henderson while the production looks for a new home.

“We can do the show anywhere,” Martin says. “We can play in a conventional theater, but it doesn’t have to be that way.” As far as he’s concerned, Stomp Out Loud might be best played in an aircraft hangar or something else totally off the local radar.

As long as it’s in Vegas, Martin doesn’t care. “We made a show for Las Vegas. It’s not leaving Vegas; it’s just going (to another theater).”

Of course, when it does that will mean rehanging all the hubcaps, remounting the street signs and reattaching cheeseburgers to the trusses to recreate the Tinkertoy set, but Martin isn’t concerned.

“All it is …” Martin pauses to speak some directions into the squawking walkie-talkie on his chest. “It’s 10,000 pieces that get put together a different way next time.

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