Imagination solves design dilemmas

Creative visions offer solutions to productions

We’d like pencil skirts we can dance in, please. We’d also like an art deco ocean liner on stage, dresses appropriate for a chorus singing “MacArthur Park,” an African village (to scale, if it’s not too much trouble) and a Victorian garden. Oh, and a tank. Broadway’s designers are used to filling tall orders, but this year’s crop of tuners and plays included some notably difficult projects. Thankfully, costume designers and set creators were up to the task.

Some found high-tech, expensive solutions to the problems of creating a fresh take on an old show. Desmond Heeley was not one of them. “As long as I’ve been working out here, which is a long time, I’ve always enjoyed the physical aspect of designing,” says the 79-year-old designer, who hand-painted the elaborate drop curtain for “The Importance of Being Earnest” but got his Tony nom for creating the show’s Victorian costumes.

“I earned my living making things when I was a kid. I was a go-fer in the theater at Stratford-on-Avon,” Heeley recalls. “It’s given me a real love of the physical aspect of my work.”

One of his favorite things about legit design is finding a simple solution to a complicated problem — love born of necessity, since Heeley can remember a time when you couldn’t immediately order any part you needed from the Internet. “For me, there’s great fun in making things happen from your own materials,” he says. “The chandelier in act three (of “Earnest”) is a joke — it’s all made out of crap and rubbish; ice cream cones and masking tape and so forth — but the audience looks at it and says, ‘Oh, right, a chandelier.'”

Heeley’s set references the artwork of the period, but for Scott Pask, the artistic references were a little more obscure. For “The Book of Mormon,” Pask had to create three different worlds: a squeaky-clean Utah town, a ramshackle Ugandan village and the world of the Book of Mormon itself. For the latter, “I looked at a lot of museum dioramas and religious paintings,” he says. “They weren’t far off from Thomas Kinkade, except the Mormon equivalent.”

Pask, who received a Tony nom for “Mormon,” found the work fascinating. “This is about a religion that’s a created mythology,” he says. “In the church, they have to research three generations of their families, and there’s a very strong link to heritage. In those Latter-day Saints research facilities, there are always these murals of Jesus that show him with the spirits of the past and all that.”

Pask created a proscenium arch that looks like it was designed by one the temple architects, of whom Pask says he’s a big fan. “They’re beautiful,” he says. “If you’ve ever been to La Jolla, you’ll notice these incredible temples that look like they’re made out of frosting.”

The designer has been busy this season — in addition to sets for “Elling” and “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” Pask also created the set for “The House of Blue Leaves.”

Derek McLane is another scenic designer who’s had plenty of work to keep him busy: he’s designed “Anything Goes,” “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” — all of which are playing simultaneously. “It’s exhilarating and terrifying,” he says. “It’s sort of a great honor, to be honest.”

For his Tony-nommed “Anything Goes” designs, McLane had to produce a big art deco ocean liner, with a series of rooms that fly on and off. The fantasy ship is based on reality: “Starting in the late 1920s and going forward, ocean liners took on a lot of the same great architectural features you’d find in Rockefeller Center or the Chrysler Building. They celebrated curves and circles and a lot of these simplified fan shapes.”

McLane’s fellow artist on “How to Succeed,” costume designer Catherine Zuber, faced a different challenge — how to make the buttoned-down fashion of the 1960s business culture into something in which the show’s dancers could pull off Rob Ashford’s choreography.

“I made sure that each of the performers sort of tested all the things that they were going to do,” Zuber says. “If it didn’t work, we found a different way to put it together. We came up with all different solutions — ways of making them moveable with what we did on the back of the skirt. It’s a little bit tricky to get the balance right — the skirts and dresses need to have these dance pants attached to them.” Those costumes, as well as the ones she designed for “Born Yesterday,” make Zuber a double nominee this season.

Costume designer Martin Pakledinaz says, unlike Zuber, he didn’t need to worry about freeing up his actors to do things their clothes had no business doing for “Anything Goes,” which nabbed him a Tony nom.

“Kathleen’s dance kept to the time pretty closely,” he says. “Often with 1930s dance shows, if there’s a huge amount of movement that’s fabulous but that’s not with the period, you have to have the fullness in the skirts. But with Kathleen’s moves, we can just go with skirts from the period — they just look like 1930s women and then they do a tap number.” Pakledinaz loves the period, and says he was inspired by a silent film called “Madam Satan” when he was looking for a theme to the sparkling dresses worn by Sutton Foster and her backups for “Blow Gabriel Blow.” “And of course, I knew we could always show off Sutton’s legs.”

Pakledinaz, who is battling cancer (he had to take time off to have brain surgery during the “Anything Goes” process), says his other 2011 show, “The Normal Heart,” took a toll on him emotionally as well as intellectually. “It was wonderful to have the astonishment of ‘Anything Goes,’ and the joy at the same time. I’m happy I’ve done ‘The Normal Heart,’ but to be honest, I’m a wreck at the end of the night. The other day I had to say, ‘I need to take a night off.’ It brings back memories.”

Pakledinaz, like many men his age, lived through the AIDS epidemic and remembers the events Larry Kramer’s play chronicles.

“When it happened — and it’s one reason I get so emotional — no one knew what was going on. And when you see the play, you’ll see all the fear.”

Gay culture comes in all forms on Broadway this season, and on the less weighty end of the spectrum sits “Priscilla Queen of the Desert.” If the costumes look similar to those you saw in the movie, it’s because they’re by the same designers: the Tony-nommed Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner. The Aussie import (by way of London) has plenty more cash to throw around than the original indie film, and Gardiner says she couldn’t be happier. “As far as the budget was concerned, I thought ‘I’ll just keep going with the designs, and they’ll stop me when we run out of money.’ And they never stopped me.” So Gardiner has all the dancing cakes, paintbrushes and wild-looking disco-style Gumby characters you could ask for.

Rae Smith, who designed the costumes and Tony-nommed set for “War Horse,” says she’s glad to have a Broadway run in which to tinker with the London import, as well.

“We had to build everything from scratch again — the exciting thing about the transfer was that the production team hadn’t come together since 2007,” Smith says. “It was thrilling because we could animate some sequences that had been shadow puppetry. And it meant new equipment — since 2007, video equipment has got much better as well, and Captain Nichols’ drawings were much clearer on the screen.”

Lincoln Center’s huge Vivian Beaumont Theater also gave them some leeway. “I could reintroduce the battlefield trench rising out of the floor, which was lost at the New London.”

Smith jokes that part of the impetus for improving the show came from the news that Steven Spielberg was working on an adaptation of the book, too. “We knew it would be brilliant,” she says. “And we thought, ‘Oh, my God. Let’s pick ourselves up a little bit here, people!'”

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