Tuesday, June 25, 2019

300 Shows: Awesome Design

After some 36 years of seeing Broadway shows, I have to admit it takes a lot to impress me. But I can guarantee that if everyone on the creative team is on the same page, and everything about the show supports the story, I will be transported. I've been through the excess of the 80's mega-musical, the minimalism that is a constant thread throughout, and now the age of projections as scenery. All I can say is that I don't need expensive sets, lights and costumes to feel I've gotten my money's worth. I've often said that if a show is any good, it can be done effectively on a bare stage, enough light to see, and the actors sitting on stools in nothing but black. (I'm still waiting for the "Concept by Jeff Kyler" credit, Chicago!) These days, a surprise or two, that really fits the show, earns bonus points with me. I'm looking at you, design team for Hadestown.

At any rate, after 300 different Broadway shows, these 20 plays, musicals and revivals are the ones whose designs have really stuck with me. Did i miss any of your favorites?

A Chorus Line (1975):
Sets: Robin Wagner; Costumes: Theoni V. Aldredge;
Lighting: Tharon Musser; Sound: Abe Jacob
The intermission-less show is on a bare stage, the main characters stand on a line in street clothes, and the only time it goes "Broadway" is the sparkly finale, and even then every costume is exactly the same. And yet, it is a mesmerizing masterpiece. Those street clothes - which you have nearly two hours to look at - are so detailed and character-driven. And that finale look is iconic. And the lighting? Wow.

An Inspector Calls (1994):
Sets and Costumes: Ian MacNeil; Lighting: Rick Fisher;
Sound: T. Richard Fitzgerald
This thriller was as thrilling to look at as it was a thrilling to watch. A silent chorus of citizens observe on a wet cobblestone floor - wet from a near constant misty rain. Add creepy lighting, lavish costumes and a creepy dollhouse set, and you've got a visual feast.

Beauty and the Beast (1994):
Sets: Stan Meyer; Costumes: Ann Hould-Ward;
Lighting: Natasha Katz; Sound: T. Richard Fitzgerald
I loved the movie, but I loved the stage production even more. It was watching the Disney fantasy come to life. They spared no expense, and it was worth every penny. I will never forget the Beast's transformation. Ever.

Brief Encounter (2010):
Sets and Costumes: Neil Murray; Lighting: Malcolm Rippeth;
Sound: Simon Baker; Projections: Gemma Carrington and Jon Driscoll
This was one CRAZY play. People swinging from chandeliers proclaiming their love, zany musical interludes. But what about those amazing projections? The ones that encompassed the entire stage. The ones that actors would disappear into and miraculously reappear in the projections. Amazing.

Cats (1982):
Sets and Costumes: John Napier; Wigs: Paul Huntley Productions, Inc.;
Make-Up: Candace Carrel; Lighting: David Hersey; Sound: Martin Levan
It's cool these days to mock Cats, but the truth is, it was (and still is) an amazing, immersive experience. The lighting effects, costumes, make-up and set combined to make it a sensory event. 

City of Angels (1989):
Sets: Robin Wagner; Costumes: Florence Klotz;
Lighting: Paul Gallo; Sound: Peter Fitzgerald and Bernard Fox
A show that is screaming "revive me!", this hilarious show with a brilliant score also had a brilliant design concept: "real life" was in color, and the "movie" was in black and white. And it really looked black and white, too. Lavish, but not excessive, perfection.

Fun Home (2015):
Sets and Costumes: David Zinn; Lighting: Ben Stanton;
Sound: Kai Harada
I've seen it on a traditional proscenium stage, and it works. But there was something really cool about being able to observe this house of horrors from all sides. The lighting, the trap doors, and the spot on furniture created the perfect setting for this emotional roller coaster. 

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two (2018):
Sets: Christine Jones; Costumes: Katrina Lindsay;
Lighting: Neil Austin; Sound: Gareth Fry; Video: Finn Ross and Ash Woodward;
Illusions and Magic: Jamie Harrison
I fear I may give something away, so I'll just say this: all of the theatrical elements combine to make an all-encompassing trip to another world. It is literally magical. But the best part is that for all of its enormity (it fills the cavernous Lyric Theatre), it still manages to be amazingly intimate when it needs to be.

Matilda: The Musical (2013):
Sets and Costumes: Rob Howell; Lighting: Hugh Vanstone;
Sound: Simon Baker
Speaking of magical, the world of Matilda is as wondrous as the little girl at the center of the story. From the Scrabble-like letter tiles, to the kaleidoscope of costumes and lights, everything about this show appealed to the little maggot in me.

Once Once On This Island (2017):
Sets: Dane Laffery; Costumes: Clint Ramos;
Wigs and Make-Up: Cookie Jordan; Lighting: Peggy Eisenhauer and Jules Fisher;
Sound: Peter Hylenski
Socially conscious is not a term you'd think would be associated with the fairy tale that this show is - but it was. And that didn't stop it from being thoroughly magical. It's amazing how a pile of sand and a bunch of recycled/re-purposed trash can be!

Shogun: The Musical (1990):
Sets: Loren Sherman; Costumes: Patricia Zipprodt;
Lighting: Natasha Katz; Sound: Tony Meola
Sure this American attempt at the mega musical was a flop, but I Loved it. Capital "L." Sure it had its tacky moments - I mean, come on, a song about the ancient Japanese art of masturbation? But it was Epic. Capital "E." It had horses, snow, ninjas and a floor that erupted in flames and smoke during an earthquake that you could Feel. Capital "F."

South Pacific (2008):
Sets: Michael Yeargan; Costumes: Catherine Zuber;
Lighting: Donald Holder; Sound: Scott Lehrer
The floor opened to reveal a gigantic orchestra. There was a cast of thousands, and a life-sized airplane. All that, and a Rogers and Hammerstein score? Epic.

Starlight Express (1987):
Sets and Costumes: John Napier; Wigs: Paul Huntley Productions, Inc.;
Lighting: David Hersey; Sound: Martin Levan
I couldn't find any pictures of the Broadway set that did it any real justice. But dang! Those costumes! Even Napier's costume sketches are amazing.

Sunset Boulevard (1994):
Sets: John Napier; Costumes: Anthony Powell;
Lighting: Andrew Bridge; Sound: Martin Levan
Speaking of Napier, even his set models are unreal. Let's face it, the first time that mansion glided into view, the collective gasp of the audience should have sucked Norma's turban right off of her head.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2014):
Sets and Costumes: Bunny Christie; Lighting: Paul Constable;
Sound: Autograph and Ian Dickinson; Video: Finn Ross
I imagine that this set (and lighting and projections) are exactly what mind of someone as special and brilliant as Christopher looks like. Everything about this entire production was exhilarating.

The King and I (1996):
Sets: Brian Thomson; Costumes: Roger Kirk;
Lighting: Nigel Levings; Sound: Lewis Mead and Tony Meola
Red and gold. That is what I remember about this revival of this classic. It was lavish and vibrant without overpowering the story. Not that anything could have overpowered the palpable chemistry between Donna Murphy and Lou Diamond Phillips. Seriously, though, it was gorgeous to look at. An way better than the last revival.

The Lion King (1997):
Sets: Richard Hudson; Costumes: Julie Taymor;
Mask and Puppet Design: Michael Curry and Julie Taymor;
Hair and Make-Up: Michael Ward; Lighting: Donald Holder;
Sound: Tony Meola; Projections: Geoff Puckett
Whole books have been written about this production. What could I possibly add? Brilliant.

The Phantom of the Opera (1988):
Sets and Costumes: Maria Bjornson; Lighting: Andrew Bridge;
Sound: Martin Levan
I'll be honest. This probably wouldn't have made this list if I hadn't seen it recently. It's not my favorite show by a long stretch. And that chandelier? Zzzzz. But the rest of the physical production is truly stunning. The late Maria Bjornson did timeless work.

The Who’s Tommy (1993):
Sets: John Arnone; Costumes: David C. Woolard;
Lighting: Chris Parry; Sound: Steve Canyon Kennedy;
Projections: Wendall K. Harrington; Video: Batwin + Robin Productions, Inc.
It was a live music video on steroids. Loud and colorful, and with a "new thing," projections! And they were so cool! Still, for me, the gold standard of rock musicals.

The Will Rogers Follies (1991):
Sets: Tony Walton; Costumes: Willa Kim;  
Lighting: Jules Fisher; Sound: Peter Fitzgerald
Lavish and old-school, heart-warming and modern, this extravaganza was unbelievable. Just when you thought they couldn't top themselves, the design team came up with yet another topper. I'd be happy just to see that multicolored, ever-changing staircase one more time.


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