Engineers overcome ‘Phantom’ challenges


“The Phantom of the Opera” is finally coming to Grand Rapids. The big question is: Will the production fit the space?

Although many are excited that Broadway’s longest-running musical of all time will be here May 18-29 for a 16-show run, it could be one of the most structurally challenging productions ever held at DeVos Performance Hall, 303 Monroe Ave. NW.

Broadway Grand Rapids Executive Director Mike Lloyd announced this summer that about $300,000 worth of improvements to the performance hall are needed to accommodate large shows in the future.

The man tasked with modifying DeVos is Chris Masacek, structural engineering discipline leader at Grand Rapids-based architecture and engineering firm Progressive AE.

Masacek has a long history of projects with DeVos Performance Hall, but he has never seen it host a show like “Phantom.”

“From a show-size perspective, it’s the largest show the hall would ever have brought into it. It has about 20 to 25 semi-trucks’ worth of equipment,” he said. “It’s a very large show that has a lot of electrical equipment most people don’t even see.”

Masacek and his team are faced with a number of challenges to accommodate the giant production safely. The first and most difficult challenge is in terms of the size of the stage floor, he said. Most shows bring their own stage floor that goes on the top of the DeVos floor, he said, but this production’s stage floor is so big it conflicts with the downstage orchestra shell doors affixed to the proscenium wall.

The real challenge will be to move the doors without changing their acoustic nature, he said.

“The stage actually extends before the opening of the proscenium, and those doors are physically in the way and they need to be moved,” he said.

“The doors are about 20 feet wide, about 40 feet tall, and they weigh about 10,000 pounds apiece. They have to be hoisted off the hinges, and the hinges now are permanent. We have to figure out a way to take them off when they need to and then be able to put them back on.”

The rest of the challenges are straightforward and solvable, Masacek said, even if they’re still major tasks.

The second task is to widen the scene shop opening for the corridor that leads to the stage, because some of the set pieces are too big fit through, he said. A third challenge will be to connect a large chandelier to hang from the ceiling, and a fourth challenge will be to assess and modify the stage floor to handle all the extra weight. This challenge will likely require the team to put temporary supports below the stage to handle specific loads in certain areas, he said.

“It’s one of the heaviest productions that’s ever been in the hall,” he said.

Masacek will have a team of about five to six people working on designing the modifications, which could take about three months. The construction aspect will be tricky because crews need to work around other productions and events happening in the hall.

“We have to fit the construction in the most conducive timeframe for the owner, and that’ll generally be in the summer-months window. The modifications will happen prior to (the show) coming, but the timeline has to fit between everything going on there.”

As for the work itself, meeting the challenges is what Masacek said he enjoys most. There’s no real education or training for work like this, he said. All you can do is bring the principles of engineering to the problem and get it done.

“The thing I like most about it … none of it is textbook engineering. It’s nothing I can just flip to a book and say, ‘Oh, here’s the situation where they bring a ‘Phantom of the Opera’ show in,” he said. 

“It’s stuff you don’t do every day that makes it rewarding, and it takes judgment because you don’t’ just find it in a book. … That’s the challenge, but it’s also the fun.”

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