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Modern Prehistoric Spectacle: Dinosaurs on Stage

Massive scientifically accurate "dinosaurs" are stomping around U.S. sports arenas, thanks to the wizardry of 21st-century puppetry techniques and robotics.

The $20 million theatrical spectacle Walking With Dinosaurs is based on a BBC television series. It will open soon in New York after leaving Washington this weekend. The show will travel to at least 80 arenas around the United States in the next two years.

In a Washington, D.C., arena that has hosted the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney, the dinosaurs were recently introduced by an onstage "paleontologist."

Among the stars was a brachiosaurus, among the 10 gigantic species manipulated by a team of high-tech puppeteers. The group is headed by Matthew McCoy.

"Brachiosaurs are the big long-necked ones that are sort of gray. The tallest one we've got is about three stories high," McCoy said. "We have to duck it to get it onstage."

There's some basic choreography, but nothing is preprogrammed. At a technical check before each show, McCoy runs the show's 15 dinosaurs through their paces. Most of them need a driver and two remote puppeteers who use mechanical arms and joysticks.

Demonstrating from a perch 60 feet away, McCoy handles the dinosaurs' blinking eyes and snapping jaws.

Sometimes you feel like a Marvel supervillain," McCoy said, "where you've got your army of robot dinosaurs."

Autumn, a 16-year-old who attended a recent show, said she found the dinosaurs quite convincing. "And they're not like, roboty," she said. "They're like, animaly."

That's a contrast to what she learned in school, she said.

"They leave out all, like, the eating, and the killing, and the cuteness."

Some teenage girls can find cuteness in anything. But the baby dinosaurs in this show are as adorable as primal befanged beasts can be. At the show, an eight-year-old named Jack said that dinosaurs are his favorite things in the world.

"Probably because they're big and bulgy," Stump said. "And they're loud. I like loud things."

The dino-fighting on the show is somewhat stylized, and completely bloodless. The show's creator — a father of two — says he was less interested in mayhem than a prehistoric narrative, one that includes geology and botany.

The onstage story ends with volcanoes, which may have changed the earth's atmosphere 65 million years ago.

"For centuries, they've spewed their gases and poisoned the earth," a narrator intoned. "Temperatures have risen. There's acid rain, so more of the delicate plants are already disappeared. And where plants go, animals tend to follow."

An ancient story with a contemporary message.

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Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.
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