Thursday, January 28, 2021

Favorite Designs: The Scenic Design of In the Heights

Walking into the Richard Rodgers Theatre in 2008 was one of those "small gasp" moments I hold so dear, especially these days when missing live theater is a way of life. Framed by the ornate proscenium, the set for a new musical by an unknown named Lin-Manuel something or other looked like an artful collage of a New York City neighborhood, the GWB its tall centerpiece. Yes, Anna Louizos' scenic design for In the Heights was stunner for this wannabe New Yorker. I sat in silence soaking up every detail I could before the show started.

I had learned to do just that kind of thing after experiencing the detailed wonders of her previous efforts Avenue Q, Steel Magnolias and her Tony-nominated High Fidelity (a wonder in and of itself). Each time, the scenery becomes a character in the show it serves. Since Heights, another Tony-nominated effort, her scenic designs for such productions as Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, Irving Berlin's White Christmas and Holiday Inn, and her Tony-nominated The Mystery of Edwin Drood have excited Broadway audiences. And still, it is her design of In the Heights that is my favorite.

The neighborhood comes to life when its people come out to work and play (and sing and dance). The action is not only on the street, but on the balconies and fire escapes as well. (Lighting by Howell Binkley)

Despite the widescreen sensibility of the total panorama of the design, a combination of slight set movements and set pieces also created a feeling intimacy easily. Note details of each individual "store." Rosario's: The signage, slightly messy collection of car assignment clipboards under florescent lighting, tell the story of an aging business limo company that is struggling financially, while remaining settled in decades-old tried and true processes.

Daniela's Salon
: The "unisex" signage is really a ruse. This beauty parlor clearly caters to the ladies of the neighborhood - their hair, sure, but also the beehive-like nature of their gossip bonding sessions. The familiarity and coloring of this design exudes the colorful feel of this genuine family of women. Still, the style of the much loved chairs betrays another business that clings to tradition, while struggling to exist.

All that's missing from Usnavi's Bodega is a cat, so familiar and well-stocked is this neighborhood staple. I really appreciated the knowing murmur of the audience as this set element was revealed. The accuracy of the fully stocked "store" was so real, I wouldn't have been surprised if they rotated stock between shows. The skill of knowing his neighbors' every need with everything within arm's reach speaks not only to the actor's skill, but the perfection of Louizos' attention to detail.

Click photos to enlarge.
📸 Joan Marcus

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