Bigger, bolder, brighter Theater: The wattage of 'Triumph of Love' has been turned up. It cost $650,000 as a regional musical and $3.5 million on Broadway. Baltimore to Broadway.

October 12, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

NEW YORK -- To producer Margo Lion, Center Stage's "Triumph of Love" was a watercolor; Broadway's "Triumph of Love" is an oil painting.

A number of technical changes have turned this $650,000 regional theater musical, currently in previews at the Royale Theatre, into a $3.5 million Broadway production that's bigger, bolder and brighter.

To start with the set: At Center Stage last winter, and at the show's subsequent engagement at the Yale Repertory Theatre, theatergoers were greeted by an 18th-century formal garden maze, whimsically covered in bright-green terry cloth.

On Broadway, however, the first thing theatergoers see is a gold lame show curtain so voluminous it spills over the lip of the stage. "It is," explains the musical's two-time Tony Award-winning set designer, Heidi Ettinger, "very funny and really excessive" -- an immediate indication that "Triumph of Love" is going to be not only humorous and beautiful, but stylistically daring.

By Broadway standards, where musical budgets can top $10 million, "Triumph of Love" is relatively modest. But as production manager and technical supervisor Peter Fulbright puts it, "There is no such thing as a small musical."

Some of the evidence for Fulbright's contention is obvious, like the gold lame curtain or the orchestra, which has grown from five musicians to 11. Other evidence is more difficult to spot, but just as consequential.

While Ettinger's maze set repeats the same basic design as Center Stage's, there are significant differences. It has acquired extra layers, making it more labyrinthian. In addition, five elevators magically raise and lower hedges at various points in the show. At Center Stage, the maze had only one elevator in a central trap door.

The maze, Ettinger explains, is not only appropriate for the show's time period, it's also a metaphor for the convoluted romantic relationships that weave in and out of the Marivaux play on which the musical is based.

Other changes an audience might not recognize include the sound system, designed by Brian Ronan. This system is considerably more extensive than it was on the regional level, right down to loudspeakers built into the raised deck on the stage.

The hard work of invisibility

If Ronan does his job well, no one will notice the sound system. "It takes a lot of work to be invisible," he says, adding that he often jokes that a good review is one that doesn't mention the sound designer. To make sure the sound quality doesn't vary throughout the house, he listens to the show from various locations in the theater during this monthlong preview period.

Lighting designer Paul Gallo is also appraising his work from a variety of seats during previews. That work is almost as intangible as Ronan's. "My lighting doesn't exist. It's in the air. Once it hits the set, it's the set. Once it hits the costumes, it's the costumes," he says. "[Lighting] pulls everything together and makes it cohesive, but standing alone, it's nothing."

For this, his 27th Broadway show, Gallo has designed lighting that is showier than that description suggests. "It's easy to get bored with a green set. The idea was to make as much variety as possible," he acknowledges. "We found ourselves going very far -- a wide range of color [to] stretch the set."

A Broadway show's lengthy preview period is one of the most conspicuous differences from a regional theater production. For the technical staff, this period is a laboratory. Every day the designers set up a half-dozen large worktables, which are perched on top of the theater seats and loaded down with computer terminals, work lights and other paraphernalia.

With the exception of costume designer Catherine Zuber and set designer Ettinger (who, after a recent divorce, has dropped her married name of Landesman), all the other designers are newcomers to the production.

Zuber's costumes are essentially the same designs that were used at Center Stage for last winter's world premiere. Like the set, however, most of the costumes are newly constructed because Broadway requires sturdier material than is needed for a limited run at a regional theater.

Designed for six

In addition, the scenery has to fit the dimensions of the new theater. Because "Triumph of Love" moved from Center Stage to Yale Rep, and then three other Broadway theaters were considered before settling on the Royale, Ettinger designed her set, in varying degrees, for six different theaters.

The scenery also has, in Ettinger's words, a lot more tricks. Besides the added elevators, these include a black granite monolith on which the philosopher Hermocrates (F. Murray Abraham) makes his entrance, a gold proscenium arch she calls "the Mozart portal" that descends for a scene near the end of the show, and, in the final scene, 20 off-stage bubble machines that create a curtain of bubbles, replacing the confetti used in the regional productions.

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