Archive for the ‘Set Design’ Category

As you may be able to tell from my previous posts, I love theater.  To quote Molly Shannon: I love it I love it I love it!  When I was a little girl, my mom took me to the small local community playhouse, the Glendale Centre Theatre, to watch Camelot and The King & I and other theater-in-the-round stagings of popular musicals.  As I grew older, I watched my friends perform in their high school plays, sometimes seeing their performances five and six times each.  Later, two of my friends – Erica (Stevens) Smith and Dore (Beynon) Marott – performed themselves at GCT – Erica in Annie and both girls in Fiddler on the Roof.  Let’s just say I saw both shows combined almost as many times as I have fingers and toes.

In my teens, my first serious theatrical love affair was with The Phantom of the Opera cast recording.  I think many girls my age were enamored with those romantic songs and the seductive voices.  From then on I sought out high-spectacle shows like Into the Woods, Les Miserable and Miss Saigon, the latter of which I was lucky enough to see in Chicago starring another long time and talented friend, Jennie Kwan. Since then, I’ve breathed in as much theater as my pocket book and schedule will allow – sometimes a lot and sometimes a little.

With the economy and my commitments being what they’ve been, I haven’t been able to see much theater for the past few years.  But thanks to some great friends and some interesting twists of fate, 2010 has been a thrilling year of theater.  🙂


Before I share a look back at the past year, I thought I’d start with the last production first:  Next to Normal.  My friend Catherine and I spontaneously ran downtown on Thursday and saw the matinée performance starring Alice Ripley, who won the Tony Award for the role.  I didn’t quite know what to expect – I’d only heard a few of the songs – but it was excellent.  With just a cast of six, the show was compelling and I still have the music floating through my memory.  Here’s a clip from the Tony Awards with two amazing songs and three incredible voices:

Alice Ripley’s voice is out of control amazing.  You can tell when she’s on stage that if she wanted she could blow the roof off the theater.  There is incredible power to her sound, but the only criticism I have is that she has a very affected way of singing with overemphasized vowels and R’s and such which can be hard to decipher in large doses.  The clip above doesn’t have as much affect, but it was very prominent in the show that I saw.  If I had my preference, it would be used sparingly, but regardless her talents cannot be denied.

As Carrie Fisher stated in the clip, the show is about a mother’s mental illness and the toll it takes on her family.  The set, though very simple, supports the story beautifully. It’s a simple grid of compartments with heavy bulb lighting to back-light the set  and semi-transparent sliding doors to open and close the compartments.  Though it represents the family home, it also keenly symbolizes the mother’s mind and brings up notions of mental compartmentalization, having the lights on when no one is home, hiding things in the back of one’s mind, and other psychological associations.  The lighting design reinforces the rock opera score and other electric story lines.  With multiple levels that showcased the musicians and actors, the set allowed for maximum movement and interest.  Here are a few shots:

And here’s a quick article from Live Design about the set with set designer Mark Wendland and lighting designer Kevin Adams:  http://livedesignonline.com/theatre/0615-next-to-normal/


Other than Next to Normal, I saw two great shows at the Ahmanson this year.  Most recently, I went to Leap of Faith, which I wrote about here.

In February, I took my mother to see Mary Poppins for her birthday, which was a fun surprise.  I told my mom to come to my place on the afternoon of her birthday, and just to trust me.  When she arrived, I gave her a vintage hat and a bag of penny candy and told her we’d be heading downtown for an afternoon to relive her childhood – way way waaaaay back to her childhood. After driving through LA with 50’s music in the car, we arrived at the Biltmore for afternoon tea, where I told her we had tickets to Mary Poppins!  In typical mom fashion, she had a good cry.  Here’s a picture of my mom at the Biltmore in her hat from the early 60′.  She’s lucky I couldn’t find white gloves on short notice!

Mary Poppins had an amazing set by Bob Crowley and a variety of surprises that made it a very special experience for the child in anyone.  The songs and the dancing were memorable, but the effects like Bert tapping upside down and Mary ascending over the crowd to the balcony were the true stars for me.

In late May I was given an amazing gift by a co-worker, Brett, who was moving out of town: his season ticket to the Mark Taper Forum.  I hadn’t been to the Taper until just a few months prior when I went to see Parade, which is a serendipitous story of its own:  I had been totally obsessed with the song “Old Red Hills of Home”, which I occasionally heard on the Broadway station on XM though I had no idea where it came from or what it was about.  It’s a soaring yet melancholy song (just the kind I tend to like, which is probably why I’m such a Jeff Buckley fan).  The vocal performances had a beautiful, longing quality that sucked me right in to the point that I emailed complimentary messages to the main performer in the song, Jeff Edgerton, and the composer (which is something I rarely if ever do), and I purchased the song on iTunes and played it ad nauseum for days.  In seeking the song out, I found out that the musical was the story of a Jewish man who was accused of murder and eventually lynched.  Um, not what I was expecting.  Though I couldn’t necessarily imagine seeing such a heavy musical, I was saddened to think that I probably would never have the opportunity even if I wanted to since the play had run in the 90’s and hadn’t been revived since.  As luck would have it, a new production was being staged in London and was coming, you guessed it, to LA.  And not only that, but the Center Theatre Group, which runs the Taper, wanted to reach the wider community and teamed up with the non-profit I work with to present a lecture with the composer Jason Robert Brown and the playwright Alfred Uhry.  Minor obsession to composer at my doorstep in twelve months or less.  How about that!  Of course, my shyness kicked in and I didn’t say much to either Brown or Uhry, but no matter.  The CTG kindly gave me tickets to the play and it was a perfect first time at the Taper.

This year, thanks to Brett, I saw the following excellent plays and musicals:

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo – An absurd yet haunting story of the aftermath of war in Iraq with Kevin Tighe as the wandering philosophical tiger.  The realistic sets by Derek McLane, including large topiaries and “tile” floors, gave an immediate sense of place and complemented the surreal events of the play.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore – A brilliant farce about a possibly dead cat, Wee Thomas, and his very, very, very upset owner – the head of an Irish terrorist group.   I wish I could find a picture of the stage at the end of the play, which was so pooled in blood and “body parts” that they literally had guys in white crime scene coveralls come out after the lights were up and pick up legs and arms and hose down the entire stage.  Major props to set designer Laura Fine Hawkes and team.  I was screaming and laughing in hysterical horror.  So crazy and so good.

The Glass Menagerie – Tennessee Williams classic play about delusion and separation.  I didn’t know what to expect from this play – the only thing I’d heard about it was in the great PBS documentary “Broadway: The Golden Age” where actor after actor told of the amazing performance by Laurette Taylor in the 40’s, which was unlike anything they had ever seen or would ever see.  It’s times like those when I wish performances could have been taped!  This production was beautiful and sad, and the set by Michael Yeargan conveyed a faded elegance complete with the long-lost father’s photo projected onto the wall like a permanent stain that couldn’t be touched and couldn’t be washed away.

Harps and Angels – A retrospective of songs by Randy Newman that was staged like a theatrically-bent musical revue. Stephan Olson’s set with Marc Rosenthal’s projections were fine, but I must say that the costumes seemed cheap and thrown together.  This was probably my least favorite of the productions but still a quality show overall with great talent including Katey Sagal and Michael McKean.  And clapping and singing along to “I Love LA” did the Valley Girl in me good.

I cannot thank Brett enough for the priceless gift of live theater.  THANK YOU!

And a special thanks also goes to my other co-worker, Perla Karney, and her always-jovial husband Ami who introduced me to a small but wonderful group in NoHo:  The Antaeus Theater Company.  A year or so ago I was treated to a trio of staged readings at the company’s current home at the Deaf West Theater.  Antaeus focuses on classical plays from Shakespeare to the 20th Century, and I was most especially captivated by their reading of Lillian Hellman’s The Autumn Garden about the lives of unfulfilled friends and acquaintances at a summer retreat.  The company mentioned they might stage a full production of the play, and this fall they mounted the show with two full casts.  I went to see the cast with Jane Kaczmarek of Malcolm in the Middle fame, who is not only a company actor but also the company’s biggest supporter.  It was again a beautiful play, and the set by Tom Buderwitz was the epitome of an elegant southern manner whose time has passed, with fragments of open molding from the ground and from above framing the stage  so as to give the audience the impression of peaking through the windows and eavesdropping on the characters’ assorted private conversations.  It’s a great little theater company, and I recommend you check them out.  Thanks again Perla and Ami!


Thank YOU for indulging me in my little trip down theater alley – I’ve really enjoyed every minute of time spent in those fold down seats.  If any of these productions interest you, there are plenty of photos, text and video to be found online, so go to it!

Happy New Year to you, and I wish you 365 days filled with amazing experiences.  As the new year begins, here’s some inspiration to push you toward your own goals…from Tick Tick BOOM starring a young Raul Esparza, here’s “Louder Than Words”:



Let’s see what surprises 2011 has in store.  😉


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Last night I went to see the new musical Leap of Faith at the Ahmanson – just two days before it ends its brief introductory run here in LA and heads to Broadway.  I absolutely love musicals, but I was particularly interested to see this one because during my time working at Appleton & Associates Architects I was afforded a bit of a behind-the-scenes look into the musical in progress. Writer Janus Cercone and her husband Michael Manheim are friends with my then boss, and would often send updates on the highs and lows of the process – directors coming and going, rewrites and so on.  With the final product in place, I was curious to see how it all turned out.

I really enjoyed the show, and the songs were just fantastic.  Gospel music hits me right here (yeah, I just pointed to my heart), and the show is filled with great gospel numbers by Alan Menken and amazing voices to back them up.  The story is a bit predictable, and Brooke Shields’ voice is certainly not the best, but the whole of it is pretty darn good, and I look forward to seeing how it’s going to do on Broadway.  I think it has all the potential to be a success.

One of the main reasons it really works is Raul Esparza.  WOW.  During one song in particular, Jonas’ Soliloquy, I just watched him and thought, “I’m lucky enough to see a true theater legend in action.”  He really is THAT good. His performance in particular led me straight to YouTube when I got home so that I could keep the Esparza high going.  He takes his material to some sort of gutteral depths and rhapsodic highs and intensifies everything with a swooning quality – sort of like the unabandoned emotional swells of greats like Judy Garland (but much more masculine, of course!).   There is a natural, in-the-moment, extreme passion to Esparza – I think in a way that many of us would like to be but are just too afraid to be.  In honor of Raul, here’s one of his best roles: Robert in Company.

If this inspires you to see all things Raul, there’s plenty of good stuff on YouTube (thank God for YouTube!), including pieces from Tick Tick…BOOM, Taboo, and other performances.  Company, as well, is an amazing show by Sondheim that explores marriage and fear of commitment – there’s plenty about it on the internet, too, so check it out!  This performance in particular was directed by John Doyle so that the actors also served as the orchestra musicians.  He used the same technique for the Sweeney Todd revival that came to the Pantages a few years back (the set for that show was excellent, but very similar to the set for Spring Awakening which I think was more successful, but I digress).  😉

By the way, the sets for Leap of Faith were designed by Robin Wagner, who’s designed some top sets for productions like The Producers, Young Frankenstein and Kiss Me, Kate.  There was a spareness to it that really worked with the story.  I usually favor using levels on stage to take up both vertical and horizontal space, but for most of the show the action is kept on the bare stage floor, with low corn and a high sky as the backdrop, and it works perfectly.  He brings in levels during the revivals, and it’s a solid choice.  There’s even a surprise at the end that washes over the stage.

If you’d like to learn more about Leap of Faith, check it out here:


And for anyone who loves going to the theater but can’t always afford it, the Center Theatre Group often offers Hot Tickets or day-of available tickets for $20, so go see those shows!

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David Stark, my all-time favorite event designer – who occasionally crosses over into the realm of merchandising and retail spaces – has created (yet another) amazing pop-up store for Target.  This time, he’s produced an environment for Target’s new Liberty of London collection – a floral explosion of complementary products for fashion and home.  Layers and layers of eye-candy and dense sensory experience = a most successful shopping adventure!  Check it out:

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The projected prints in motion and the patchwork skin on the exterior are my favorite elements as they celebrate Liberty of London’s chief commodity: its patterns.  Beautiful work.

Click HERE for David’s debrief at David Stark Sketchbook.  

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And stay tuned later this week for my review of a great new store just a toad’s jump from my place…guaranteed to transport you to a magical world.  😉

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For the second year in a row, we were treated to an elegant and sparkling stage at the Academy Awards – reminiscent of the glamorous, satin-y films from the 1930’s that starred screen goddesses like Jean Harlow or Claudette Colbert. 

As he did last year, David Rockwell, founder of NYC’s Rockwell Group, designed the show’s sets.  Not only is he a wildly successful architect (he designed the Kodak Theater itself), but he’s a designer of theatrical and immersive spaces including sets for “Hairspray”, “Legally Blonde” and the upcoming “Catch Me If You Can.” 

After years of watching the awards on television, I think the sets these past two years have been my favorites. Rockwell’s chosen sophistication and simplicity allowed the performers on stage to be beautifully framed without creating a competing focus, and at the same time he perfectly captured the essence of what “Hollywood” is to the soul of its audience: a silvery fantasy world where dreams really can come true.

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