‘Apollo 11 – The Immersive Live Show’ : Great Visuals But Bumpy Start to a National Tour

The experience “Apollo 11 – The Immersive Live Show” launched at the Pasadena Rose Bowl under a 40,000 square-foot Lunar Dome during Independence Day weekend with previews, but despite some beautiful visual effects, including 360-degree projections and a chance at the end to get a selfie with an almost life-size replica of the moon landing module,  Pasadenans may find the theatrical experience doesn’t play well for those who remember the past and its by-products.

The conceit of the play is that grandfather Ben is telling his granddaughter about how he was part of the Houston Mission Control engineers and scientists, breathlessly waiting for the final word of success while her mother was being born on that fateful day in 1969. Although her mother has passed away, Ben and his wife still celebrate her birthday.

Fifty years later, there’s a lot of celebrate and this play has a lot going for it. The dome inside is cool which is a miracle itself in the sweltering heat of a Pasadena summer. The night sky is projected on to the dome’s ceiling, giving us a view of more stars than one would see with the naked eye with all the light pollution of the city. The dome is also used to project other images, at times giving us a montage to get a feel for the era. Ben and his young wife, travel from Indiana to Houston, Texas and we pass through a few familiar cities on the way but the cars we see put us in the 1960s.

In this theater in the round, we also get a chance to see waves projected on the surface of the stage. The back wall works as a screen but also parts so that other multi-leveled stages can come forward, including a tiered set of counters that represent Mission Control.

No doubt the history of the race to the moon was accurate. What surprised me was the inclusion a black actor, Ollie (Dennis Renard), who introduces himself to Ben. The show is double cast and Ollie is also played by Jackson Kendall, who is not black. Historically, the problem is that NASA grappled with the problem of diversity and that wasn’t easy as most of the NASA facilities were in the Deep South. Texas was part of the slave states prior to the American Civil War and sided with the Confederate cause.

Sure the Civil War was over by the 1960s by a century, but segregation, Jim Crow laws and anti-miscegenation were not. President John F. Kennedy did have a plan for integration that his Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was able to implement according to an article in Air & Space. The Civil Rights Act became law in 1964 and, more importantly, in the case of this play, Loving v. Virginia wasn’t decided by the US Supreme Court until 1967 (June). The last Southern state to remove an anti-miscegenation law from the state constitution was Alabama in 2000.  In 1967, Texas still have anti-miscegenation laws that prevented all non-whites from marrying whites and those were only overturned by the Supreme Court decision.

Yet, in the play, Ollie mixes casually with the rest of the engineers at a social event although he is the only black person there.  In a place where Jim Crow laws were enforced and anti-miscegenation laws were only recently struck down by a Supreme Court decision,  would a black man casually tease a white colleague’s wife, asking if she had a sister?

In the Friday evening performance that I saw, we understand that Ben and his wife Elizabeth, are not racist because their granddaughter, Sydney, is biracial (when Tyler Marie Watkins is playing Sydney).  Diversity casting is great, but it should take into consideration the time period. Some of the visuals reference the Civil Rights movement and there was a Civil Rights protest led by Reverend Ralph Abernathy at the Apollo 11 launch (See “Chasing the Moon“).

Another troubling aspect comes toward the end. When Sydney asks Ben why go to the moon and why go to Mars, he tells her that we’ll need more space to colonize. That fails to address the many things we use today as a result of the Apollo program, that by exploring space, we learned more about our own world and made improvements and even new industries. NASA has a webpage devoted to this topic and a publication about technology spinoffs.

Benefits from the Apollo program include:

  • Special pens that allow ink to flow in low gravity
  • Cordless, lightweight battery-powered instruments that led to todays electric screwdrivers, drills, etc.
  • Clocks that run on simulated quartz crystals.
  • Vibration detectors that now prevent burglaries.
  • Heart monitors that can note the onset of a heart attack and provide a corrective electrical shock.
  • Pacemaker systems.
  • Solar panels which are used on the Space Station.
  • The shock and vibration system used to simulate liftoff stress on the launch pad is used for earthquake testing of railway cars, road-transported cargo and refrigeration units and highway pavement.
  • Houston’s Reliant Stadium’s retractable roof
  • Hawaii’s Aloha Stadium uses a thin air cushion to move stadium seating.
  • The Moon Boot revolutionized athletic footwear by improving shock absorption and providing better stability and motion control.
  • Many major manufacturers of breathing apparatus uses NASA ethnology in some form in order to reduce inhalation-related injuries.

So while scientists and science geeks might cringe at the reasoning given for space exploration, the 360-degree projections provide stunning visuals. Your seat quakes as the Saturn rocket launches and the show features a slightly smaller version of the lunar landing module which you can take selfies of after the show. The July 20th 12 noon performance includes a conversation moderated by LA Times’ columnist Patt Morrison with former NASA astronaut Dr. Bonnie Dunbar, Vice President of Strategy & Business Development for space programs at Aerojet Rocketdyne Frank Slazer and author of “Space Shuttle: The Quest Continues” and “Space Shuttle: A Quantum Leap” George Torres. On July 24th (anniversary of the Apollo 11 splash down) will have a STEAM program launch with the Aldrin Family Foundation. For tickets ($45-$215) or more information visit Apollo11show.com or call 1-833-5-APOLLO.

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