'South Pacific,' 'Liaisons' get lavish sets, costumes

With all the scaled-down revivals of late, you might think that what theatergoing grown-ups really want is a scaled-down, cabaret-style Broadway production, maybe with tasteful suits for costumes. You’d be wrong, though: This year’s crop of high-minded Rialto shows put a premium on big, immersive sets and lavish costumes. The new “Macbeth” and “Sunday in the Park With George” sported huge projections, “August: Osage County” featured a life-size cutaway three-story house, and for “South Pacific,” two huge flatbed trucks spanned the length of Lincoln Center’s vast Vivian Beaumont Theater.

That last chunk of scenery was a little bit of serendipity for “South Pacific” designer Michael Yeargan, who wanted trucks built exactly to period specifications. “We took the bids, and Hudson (Scenic Design) came in very low, so they won the bid,” Yeargan recalls. “I said, ‘How are you going to build the trucks this cheaply?’ and they said, ‘Well, we’ve got ‘em.’” So now, rather than plywood-and-metal replicas, Luther Billis and the other Seabees dance on a stage towed by vintage 1940s flatbeds.

Intimacy is key for another high-profile show this season: the revival of “Sunday in the Park With George,” which designer David Farley says started “with a concept that we were always in George’s studio, and that he goes through his creation of the park into the world of the park.” To that end, he and projection designer Tim Bird created a series of designs that painted themselves on the walls of the set, using projectors placed at narrow angles to each wall, “which allowed the actors to stand two feet from the wall and still not hit the beam.” The effect, Farley says, puts the characters into the paintings.

Characters inhabit works of art in a slightly different way in “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” where Katrina Lindsay has put each one into an extravagant period costume. “I wanted the silhouettes for the different characters to be very specific,” Lindsay explains. “I wanted to keep the palette quite clean — you don’t want to swamp the piece.”

Speaking of pared-down, the script for “The 39 Steps” gave designer Peter McKintosh a scary stage direction: “a chase across the moors.” McKintosh’s solution: “Pull a sheet across the stage and do shadows.”

And that’s just what they do, creating a giant shadow-play that visually name-checks Hitchcock with everything up to and including puppets of the “North by Northwest” crop dusters. It’s fun, sure, but extravagant? More than you’d think.

“Everything looks so simple that when I handed in the drawings and the model, the producers were quite surprised,” McKintosh says with a laugh.

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