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'Fiends’ show at Howl-O-Scream gets coronavirus makeover

Busch Gardens has put on the musical every year for the Halloween event, but this year required more distance and custom face masks.

One of the first live performances to hit a Tampa stage in months will be the corny and bawdy “Fiends” show that has been at every Howl-O-Scream for the past two decades. It will debut when the Halloween event opens tonight at Busch Gardens and runs for 18 select nights.

To meet safety guidelines in the coronavirus era, the show is outdoors, with face masks added to the costumes. There’s a quarantine story line and the cast will stay socially distanced. The director hopes they can provide a model that other performing troupes can learn from to bring live theater back.

“We would have only been able to seat 300 people in the Stanleyville Theater to keep the audience at a proper distance,” Busch Gardens spokeswoman Rebecca Romzek said as she looked out on the vast festival field wedged between SheiKra and the as-yet-unopened Iron Gwazi roller coaster. “But here we can put 800 people and still keep a safe physically distanced space.”

Related: October brings lots of Halloween events around Tampa Bay, but with big changes this year

The show is helmed by Malissa Spencer, 47, the director, co-writer and producer, who has worked for Busch Gardens for 11 years. Set designer Gogo Irwin, 26, created the physical space that became the template for the script. It’s unusual in the horror and haunted house game for women to have such lead roles, Romzek noted, but Spencer says “Fiends” is unusual in the horror game already. It has a cult following among Howl-O-Scream’s long-time fans and the cast is full of actors who come back every year.

Show director Malissa Spencer shows how the Fiends set's many risers help her to keep the cast spaced apart while performing on the outdoor stage. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

“This cast in particular is very close-knit. They have done this show for a number of years,” Spencer said. “We have to keep reminding ourselves to stay six feet apart and keep our masks on at all times during rehearsals and on property.”

There are 16 actors and dancers in the cast. The innuendo-filled script changes a bit every year, led by wild-haired mad scientist Dr. Freakenstein. It gets updated each year with pop culture references to the Kardashians, Snapchat filters, reality TV shows, Mark Zuckerberg and other modern horrors. But there are staple elements such as a dance number by some vampy vampires and a Chippendale-style dance segment that features a thrusting Wolfman and assistant Igor dropping lurid pickup lines.

Performer Timyah Brockington, 27, said she got emotional when she got the call that the Fiends show at Howl-O-Scream would go on after all this yea at Busch Gardens. She has danced in the show for the last four years. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Timyah Brockington, 27, dances as one of the naughty nurses in “Fiends” and also plays the bride of Freakenstein’s monster in the show. She teared up when she got the call that the show would go on.

“We love each other and we are just so close it was so good to know we could come back,” said Brockington, who has danced in the show for four years. She said she didn’t feel any discomfort about returning. “We are just happy to be back.”

Spencer said she hopes other live performing troupes in the area can learn from how they have managed to plan, rehearse and design a show while keeping a safe distance between the performers and the audience.

Socially distanced seating is set up in the festival field at Busch Gardens for the Howl-O-Scream show called "Fiends." [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

The audience is spaced apart on benches across the grassy festival field next to the Iron Gwazi coaster. Irwin’s set design on the outdoor stage includes several risers and platforms to space performers out at separate heights in what looks like the exterior of a gothic castle. Spencer said this was the rare time she had the set designed first and used that as the basis for the script, adding jokes about quarantine and keeping characters six feet apart.

The performers wear face coverings at all times, but thanks to a special face mask for singers created by a local designer, their voices aren’t muffled. Steven Midura, a former Busch Gardens vocalist who runs Midura Designs, created custom masks that have a convex shape so the material isn’t touching the performer’s face, which eliminates the muffled sound associated with masks.

A modified face mask created by former Busch Gardens performer Steven Midura allows singers to perform without muffled audio coming from their microphones. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

“It’s pretty clear,” Spencer said. “We had our reservations but you really can hear them very well.”

Instead of being set inside the doctor’s lab, the set is the front of his castle because he’s not letting anyone come inside.

“He’s very quirky and when I imagined how Dr. Freakenstein would quarantine, I played on the irony that it’s not cozy, but very imposing looking, what you would imagine where a mad scientist would take refuge,” Irwin said of her set design. “A suit of armor out front keeps guard to ward people off.”

Spencer said she hopes the show can break some of the tension people are feeling these days.

“We need a little levity with everything that’s going on right now, and this show always pushes the envelope," Spencer said. "It’s an 18 and up mature theme, so we have a couple of fun things planned this year.”

If you go

Fiends: The comic musical is part of Busch Gardens' Howl-O-Scream, the after-hours Halloween event that runs Friday through Nov. 1. The show runs at 8:30 and 10 p.m. in the park’s festival field near the Iron Gwazi coaster.

Admission: Tickets start at $29.99, and reservations must be made in advance at howloscream.com.

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