Cher's show opened at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas to a packed house. She always delivers what everyone expects and more. So we, as the designers, had to deliver also. I am fortunate enough to have designed a number of Cher's concert tours, so I am familiar with the way she likes to work: closely and personally with everyone on her production.
This time, the show had a few new challenges. The first time Cher met with her team, she told us that she wanted every production number to be completely different. That is what we all set out to accomplish. This was not a huge challenge for Doriana Sanchez, the director and choreographer, who, among other varied and international projects from circuses to musicals, has been working as the director and co-creator of concert tours with Cher for most of the last two decades; her last NBC special won four Emmys.
Nor would it be a challenge for production manger Malcolm Weldon, who has guided Cher, Tina Turner, Janet Jackson, the Eagles, and many more around the world more than once. It really wouldn't be a challenge for any member of the creative team. Lighting designer Baz Halpin has focused the lights on Pink, Tina Turner, and Christina Aguilera, to name a few of his extensive and varied credits, while media designer Olivier Goulet is from Geodezik, an inventive Montreal-based company known for its expertise in video design, video/set design, and animation for many of the Cirque du Soleil productions, artists, and entertainment companies.
And certainly, this would not be a challenge or a new concept for costume designer Bob Mackie, who sprang onto the national stage with his designs for Cher and Carol Burnett during the television variety show era in the ‘70s. Ensemble costume designer Hugh Durrant, who has created fanciful and beautiful costumes for some of the biggest European opera productions, was also on board.
No member of this creative team was in unfamiliar territory, except for two big problems. At our first meeting, the team's creativity was bursting at the seams with concepts such as burning waterfalls, glass staircases, diagonal elevators, and triple turntables. Weldon let us continue until we started to discuss a stairway from the back of the house to the stage, at which point he interrupted. “Hold it guys. We have two big problems: Bette and Elton.”
In my experience, the first question journalists ask set designers is, “What were your greatest challenges on this job?” Usually, I am at a loss. “It's all a challenge and all a pleasure,” I usually weakly mutter. Now, I finally had a media sound bite for the inevitable question. “Two words, Bette and Elton!”
The problems were not exactly Bette Midler and Elton John personally, but their bigger production scenic elements and lighting had to remain stored on stage. The issues slowly dawned on us. Cher was to alternate at the Colosseum with John and Midler, and in some cases, with only a few days turnaround between the run of each show.
The real problem was designing Cher's sets and lighting to fit into the theatre alongside the other massive productions. We could not redo KÀ or compete with O. “It must look like a spectacle show and act like a tour,” said Sanchez. We could see Weldon relax just a little.
We had the disadvantage of being the last production to be loaded into the theatre. Fortunately, Weldon is also Midler's production manager, so he knew exactly how little usable space was left for us. The fly rails were packed with things like Midler's biggest headdress in the world and John's huge electrified “Elton” sign, plus about five lines of lighting fixtures that were unusable to Halpin. I realized that, if we were to get multiple scenic changes, this had to be a largely ground-supported show.
An advantage was the 120' by 40' Mitsubishi Diamond Vision LED screen that all three productions inherited from Celine Dion's previous engagement at the Colosseum. At least I wouldn't have to try to squeeze backdrops into the tightly packed fly rail.
Working closely with all team members, we finally ended up with a huge set consisting of two 40' towers spanned by an 8' wide by 60' long bridge that travels from stage level to the grid, while supporting an entire lighting package and 14 dancers, as do the two 20' balconies extending downstage, from the stage left and stage right towers to the fire curtain.
The towers that I designed have inner staircases and an elevator and had to be anchored to the concrete below stage level. Tait Towers did another brilliant job making it all work. The towers can be assembled and disassembled in a few hours, and the crew doesn't need tools to build them. Even the black, reflective Lexan, CMC router-cut, fascia were attached by a series of magnets that immediately located the scenic elements to their exact positions. All that was required was safety chaining each piece.
Upstage is a 10'-high dancer stage that has quick change dressing rooms below and an LED wall on stage. That is the basic set. Then came the real scenic elements. Working with Emmy award-winning art director, Richard Schreiber, we designed a sun chariot, a battery-powered boat, a jewel-encrusted pearl, the glitteriest staircases ever, pop-up cards, and a closet that morphs into a gypsy wagon and then into a fortune teller tent. And the list kept growing. This scenery was built in Burbank by the innovative Global Entertainment Industries, a 20-year-old scenic shop.
It was a unique experience, in my opinion, as we all had to work as a unit, and this we did without friction. All the disciplines were interdependent. The screen worked in some cases to support the visuals of the scenic elements and sometimes the set itself.
Goulet said that the video department didn't have many problems sharing the theatre with Midler and John, since he was in charge of the technical design for both productions that share the same equipment. “We are using five different media for the content: 6mm, 25mm, and 16mm pixels, sharing LEDs, as well as DLP and LCD projectors,” he says. “The big challenge was to match the different projectors and LED screens to create a single, uniform look. First, the content is created as if the entire structure is made of 6mm and then scaled down for the different types of screens, which gives us a full continuity between the different elements. For example, a projected dot could travel from one end of the sidewalls of the theatre and move across all the different screens without ever changing size or shape. The content ratio is huge, 5,400 by 1,300 pixels for the back LED wall and side projection walls, and 3,350 by 720 pixels for the downstage scrim and side walls.”
The production uses 12 coolux Pandoras Box media servers that Goulet says are “the only solution when working with high resolution content. The resolution and ratios were not the only issue. The delay between all the different image processors was a big challenge.” He had to delay the various sections of the images in order to have a perfect sync between the different presentation mediums.
Projection is always a bit difficult in a rock ‘n’ roll environment, especially with all the LED power upstage. First, Goulet had to run all the LEDs between 10% and 30% intensity for the entire show. We're using four Christie Roadie 25K projectors on the downstage 120' by 40' screen, giving us 230 Lux. This equipment is more than enough to present original footage from Cher's career on stage and screen as big as any IMAX theatre.
One of the most important elements in this show was the cooperation among the departments. We sometimes use elements from the set, sometimes from the costumes, sometimes from the dancers in action, always striving for a perfect symbiosis of colors and textures between lighting and video. Sometimes, to accentuate this perfect blend, we will integrate virtual lights in the content. Halpin notes that the lighting was hung mostly from the towers, the bridge, the stage left and right balconies, and the house linesets.
As we are sharing the space with Midler's and John's productions, this also meant we had to factor in the time required to change from one production to another. One of the most difficult challenges was to create a dynamically different show while using the same stock of equipment and hanging spaces. Having the onstage towers working in conjunction with the moving band risers helped immensely, as it gave the feeling of a false proscenium, when required. This meant we could reduce the performance space from 130' wide to 80' wide when needed.
Halpin took advantage of the towers and used them both as effective sidelighting positions for the smaller stage setup and also for the mid-level positions for beamier rock looks when the full stage is in use. “The moving bridge also gives yet another variation to our setup,” he says. “When in the high trim, the bridge forms the main mid-stage truss position, and as the bridge moves down into various mid-level positions, in turn, I was furnished with new and interesting beam looks. The simplicity and versatility of the set design meant it was quite an easy task to create and maintain a variety of very different and interesting looks.”
Throughout the show, for key moments, we have individual set pieces specific to each scene. “This meant that lighting each piece effectively requires internal lighting,” says Halpin. “For the majority of set pieces, I chose LED fixtures. The addition of each of these set pieces — the boat, pearl, DaVinci, and the closet — gave the stage a completely different look and feel.”
Due to the volume of the LED screen, the various types and intensities, and the addition of large-scale projection, the choice of fixtures was critical. “The fixtures needed to be bright enough, when needed, to balance and cut through the main upstage LED screen but also be subtle and effective when in a projection scenario,” says Halpin. The show's lighting director is Steve “Six” Schwind, and the show was programmed on a Martin Maxxyz Plus console (basically a custom Maxxyz Compact with a upgraded CPU and memory). The Colosseum head electrician is Greg Whittle.
Cher is fully engaged in the production and is constantly looking for ways to perfect and improve the show, and with Sanchez, they will keep it fresh and alive, always interesting and very often different.
CHER AT THE COLOSSEUM
1,348 ETC Sensor+ Dimmer
2 Martin Professional Maxxyz Plus Console
1 Martin Professional Maxedia Pro
12 Pathway 4-Port Node
95 Coemar Infinity Wash
60 Vari-Lite VL3000 Spot
24 Vari-Lite VL3500 Spot
24 Vari-Lite VL2202 Spot
39 Vari-Lite VL3500 Wash
46 Clay Paky Alpha Profile 1200 SV
14 Syncrolite SX3K
1 Studio Duo Dominator
3 Robert Juliat Heloise Followspot
4 Robert Juliat Aramis Followspot
1 Lycian 3kW Followspot
14 Martin Atomic Strobe
2 Hungaro Strobes
24 Philips Solid State Lighting ColorBlast
18 AC Lighting Chroma-Q Color Block
6 PixelRange PixelLine 1044
34 PRG 4-light Linear Molefay
20 Police Beacons
120 Strings of Twinkle Light
24 Jem Hydra Fog Head
2 Jem Hydra Base Station
310 Element Labs Stealth v2
110 Barco ILite 6 LED Tiles
5 Christie Roadie HD25K DLP HD Projector
6 Christie Roadster S+20K DLP HD Projector
3 Christie Roadie LX1500 LCD Projector
12 thinklogical DVI-to-Fiber Optic Transmitter
12 thinklogical Fiber Optic-to-DVI Receiver
14 Analog Way Dual DVI Distribution Amplifier
20 Neutrix 500' Fiber Optic Cable
2 Sony BRCH700 HD 3-CCD Robotic Camera
2 MA Lighting grandMA Light Console
10 coolux Pandoras Box V4 Media Server LT
2 coolux Pandoras Box V4 Media Server STD
2 coolux Media Manager PRO Server Controller
4 coolux HD SDI Input Card for Pandoras Box
2 Dtrovision Purelink DVI 9×9 Matrix Router
2 Evertz MVP® Multi-Image Display Processor
4 Miranda Technologies DVI-Ramp 2 Graphic-to- HD/SD Video Interface