Dancing on the ceiling: A backstage look at the Rio’s ‘Show in the Sky’

Parade in the Sky cast member Molleigh Wallace dances in a float during a special show at the Rio’s Masquerade Village Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012. Usually the show is held Thursday through Saturday, but in honor of Fat Tuesday, the casino held a special show with entertainers from a variety of entertainers helping to throw beads from the floats.

Behind the Scenes at Rio's Show in the Sky

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'Show in the Sky'

When: On the hour, from 6 – 11 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.

Where: Masquerade Village inside the Rio.

To ride: Watching the show is free, but there’s a $12.95 cost to get into costume and ride in one of the floats. There are 25 seats available. Height requirement is 38 inches for riders. Riders ages 16 and younger must be accompanied by an adult. All riders must be able to walk up three flights of stairs without assistance. Those wanting to ride must be at the front of the Masquerade Village stage with their tickets 30 minutes prior to show time.

BY THE NUMBERS:

950: approximate feet of tracks carrying the floats

480: volts of electricity that operate the floats

3: feet per second that the floats travel during the show

18 1/2: length in feet of the square center stage

13,000: weight in pounds of the lightest float

17,000: weight in pounds of the heaviest float

Paolo Cuccaro likens running the Rio’s “Show in the Sky” to steering a cruise ship.

That’s what Cuccaro piloted before he arrived more than a dozen years ago to control the show’s large, flashing showboats and gondolas as technical director.

“We run machines on top of people, so that’s something you always think about,” Cuccaro said of the decorative floats encircling the ceiling high above the casino floor.

The glimmering floats weigh 13,000 to 17,000 pounds before they take on dancers and two dozen spectators. Each of the five floats must pass the same inspections and certifications as carnival rides.

Except this show resembles more the famed Carnival of Brazil, with dancers wearing little more than a few stitches and high-energy music throbbing through the resort’s Masquerade Village.

In just about any other city, the free “Show in the Sky” would be a major attraction.

“Here, people look up and say, ‘Oh, that’s cool,’ but this is a city where there are so many cool things,” Cuccaro said.

But the performers and crew take a special pride in keeping the show going.

The rigging was built into the Rio by the same production designers who made a helicopter fly over the Broadway stages in “Miss Saigon.”

Beams in the ceiling are engineered to hold the tracks and catwalks, which have access doors similar to a subway to allow maintenance of the structures. Estimates of the initial cost surpass $25 million.

Cuccaro compares the tracks carrying the massive floats to an upside-down roller coaster. Backstage, a huge turntable loads the floats onto the tracks that will carry them around the room.

“The floats haven’t changed since 1997,” said Paige Howarth, who danced in the first “Show in the Sky” and is Rio’s entertainment director.

Neither has the technology: The automated computer system that drives the floats still runs off Windows 97.

Six switches direct the floats to carriage systems that take them along loops on the ceiling. Dancers aboard the floats throw Mardi Gras beads to people waving and screaming from the floor and the upper retail and dining levels.

Microwave signals provide a two-way communication with the automated computer system that guides the floats. There’s no room for a computer blip during the performance.

“The data flow from the computers to the floats has to be continuous,” Cuccaro said.

A crew of eight work from 3:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. on show days, Thursdays through Saturdays, to keep thousands of lights flashing and the floats running smoothly and safely.

“It’s become so routine you don’t even think about it,” said Louie Torres, who has worked on the tech crew for 10 years.

Electronic monitors are used to ensure the safety of the performers on the various stages, including a lift that brings a huge bed up from underneath the center stage during the 8 o’clock show.

While the show has changed and scaled back over the years, the production has remained consistent since 2008.

Three shows grow in musical energy — and dwindle in costume size — throughout the night, as the audience becomes more mature.

Latin, hip-hop and jazz rhythms fuel the night.

“The Latin number is everyone’s favorite, just because of the energy,” said Jennifer Roush, a dancer at the Rio for the past three years.

Roush said the stage show that opens the production, before entertainers board the high-flying floats, brings her closer to the audience than any of the two previous productions she’s performed with in Las Vegas. The audience can stand directly in front the foot of the stage, where performers sing and dance up and down staircases on a two-story set.

“The stage is right there, so you can feel the energy of the audience,” said Roush, who began dancing as a child in Del City, Okla. “You’re close enough you can see them out there, bobbing their heads and getting into the energy.”

Then the entertainers ascend to ride along the ceiling.

“It brings energy to the casino,” said Howarth, who has worked in every production area of the Rio. “It’s been a fantastic way to get people to come off the Strip and across the street to see a free show.”

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