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Dolly Parton launches Myrtle Beach pirate show

By Steve Palisin
spalisin@thesunnews.com

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MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. - The diving boards on both ships in this theater double as planks, but only for adding acrobatic accoutrements for diners overlooking the Buccaneer Bay lagoon.

Pirates Voyage Fun, Feast & Adventure sets sail tonight after a five-month, $11 million transformation of Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede Dinner Attraction, an 18-year-old landmark on the north tip of Myrtle Beach.

Walking into the theater Monday afternoon, as installation of final pieces continued amid rehearsals, Ken McCabe, who wrote "Pirates Voyage," talked about how every patron becomes part of this show, sitting just a few feet from about 30 actors tumbling, swimming, singing, dancing and sword fighting.

"You are in it," he said walking onto a ship. "You are in the set."

McCabe, corporate entertainment director for Pirates Voyage, showed how the two vessels in a 15-foot-deep, 750,000-gallon lagoon, bisect two audiences. Patrons sit on the Crimson or Sapphire side, resembling the North and South demarcation from "Dixie Stampede."

The similarities to the former theater drift away there, though, especially with the hardwood flooring everywhere, and a ceiling raised by 30 feet to accommodate ship platforms, catwalks and high-flying antics.

Even before stepping onto the ships, guests warm up their evening by first stopping in a pirate village, where strolling musicians entertain and youngsters have their own warmup act in two stations. Not only can children get made up to look like pirates with help from tattoos and patches, they can hit a sandbox to find and make their own treasures of jewelry to take into the show.

Two lead characters from the show did some practice clad in full costume Monday.

With a heavy coat, 2-foot-high boots, and a hat that adds a half-foot to his already 6-foot-plus height, Stan Wood adopted the trademark pirate dialect in identifying himself.

"Best be afraid. I'm Capt. Nathaniel Dread, the pirate king," he said in a convincing, resonating voice.

The graduate of Winthrop University in Rock Hill said the rich history of pirates off the Carolinas fascinates him, especially with a coastline of which he has read, and realized why they could hide so easily. He said in applying to audition for the role, he concluded he had a head start atop his torso: "I have a long hair and a beard."

Strength and femininity

His opposition on stage, Melissa Prather, portrays Capt. Red Scarlet, which signifies her side in the arena of about 950 seats. Prather, who started her acting career in California, said this marks her first lead role.

She discussed displaying strength, while still returning to "a feminine side," to keep a balance.

"You have to be both," she said.

Prather also sees real-life parallels from the role, to work hard and persevere by "being strong and knowing you can do it, no matter where you are."

A trained gymnast, she stepped through some back tumbling sequences on the lagoonside sand, ending with flips as her scarlet skullcap flew off in front of the first row of tables on the side of the theater for her cheer section. Applause resulted from cast members waiting in a corner on the Crimson side.

Wood likes how no "wall" exists between the ensemble and the audience, whose front rows could equate to field box seats along the baseline at a baseball game.

"You become part of the show," he said.

High energy, special effects

Larry McCoy, director of sales and marketing for Pirates Voyage, praised the "high energy" and special effects of the production, which will include other sidelights such as surprise animal appearances and mermaids to lighten up the mood from scenes of pirates "battling everywhere."

McCabe said in casting for the production, officials wanted actors who could cross train, such as gymnasts who could dive, and to ensure that all the actors could learn sword fighting.

He and McCoy spoke about the great timing of the theater's reopening, just two weeks after the release of the third "Pirates of the Caribbean" installment, "On Stranger Tides."

"Kids will be amazed," McCabe said. "They'll feel like they're in a movie."

McCoy touched on how the show theme appeals across the age spectrum, from families with elementary schoolers, as well as teens and adults.

"Pirates are a very popular product," he said. "You can see it live here in a real pirate setting."

Parton, whose company owns "Pirates Voyage" and the theaters where "Dixie Stampede" carries on in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and Branson, Mo., will continue her Dollywood Foundation "Imagination Library" locally. The program promotes literacy among preschoolers, mailing books monthly - with titles such as "The Little Engine That Could," "Little Toot," "Mrs. Wishy Washy" and "Take Care, Good Knight" to children until age 5. (Details at www.imaginationlibrary.com.)

"That's one way we're continuing to give back to the community," McCoy said.

McCabe also said Parton has stayed one of the main promoters in turning this Dixie Stampede sandy stage into the water-based "Pirates Voyage," especially with her own career craft.

"She's written four songs for it," he said, explaining her trust and support throughout the theater renovations, sight unseen, until tonight. "She sees it when she gets here."

Want to go?

What | Pirates Voyage Fun, Feast & Adventure

When | 4, 6 or 8 p.m., depending on date (preshow starts an hour beforehand)

Where | At northern junction of U.S. 17 Bypass and U.S Business in Myrtle Beach, next to the Gilmore Auditorium/"The Carolina Opry"

How much (including tax) | $45.77 or $51.22 ages 12 and older, $23.97 or $29.42 ages 4-11, and free ages 3 and younger on adult's lap

Information | 497-9700 or 800-433-4401, or www.piratesvoyage.com

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