Promoting her latest recording on her first tour in seven years, Cher proved herself to be a diva with a sense of humor as she poked fun at her numerous outrageous costumes and even once joked that her wig (one of many) wasn't fitting correctly. A pop icon who has gone in and out of style more times than she changes costumes in her show, she made entertainment history again this year with "Believe," a nearly inescapable pop/club hit from the album of the same name. With this song, she has become the only artist ever to have a Top 10 hit in four consecutive decades--the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. So, for this, her umpteenth comeback, she came back with a vengeance--and one of the most successful and visually stunning tours of the summer season.
Working with new manager Roger Davies and her longtime choreographer and show director Dorian Sanchez, the artist sketched out a 90-minute show that chronologically highlights her entire career. With six dancers, a six-piece band, three video screens, and many scenery and prop changes, the show isno mere pop concert.
"It's a play in four acts--from a design point of view anyway," explains set designer Mark Fisher. "There are wonderful rich, backdrops and very rich scenery all the way through. We start off with a 'Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves' retro dungeon look and then we go into a retro late 60s/early 70s scene. Next there is an unplugged section, and for the finale, we come back with a rave/dance and hip-hop 'Believe' section."
Naturally, each section is rendered with the appropriate accessories. "In the first one, we have six rather nice torches, which are 9' high and wheeled around by the dancers through effective smoke and lighting. Next, the psychedelic section has strings of glowing crystal beads, some stacks of inflatable cushions covered with brocade and tassels, and a 30'-tall lava lamp. The unplugged section is simplicity and elegance itself with Madame sitting on a stool silhouetted against and multicolored star drop. Finally, the drum and bass sequence features a fantastic silver/metallic backdrop, which is way downstage to allow light to slash through it, and generally 'art' the place up in a contemporary industrial style."
The staging, which was built by Tait Towers, has three elevators. The center one goes up so high that Cher is able to appear in the middle of the video screen behind it. The other two, which flank the stage, allow the dancers to make dramatic appearances. They also lift the lava lamp at the appropriate moment.
"There's another gag in the psychedelic section where we have wonderful Chinese lanterns that come down with lights and the dancers are in them," Fisher says. "They then reel up the lanterns so the dancers come down on trapezes. At the end, we have really heavyweight bungee cords holding the two trapezes for the dancers in the drum and bass section. So it's a fabulous combination of dancing, singing, and circus. Cher wanted to pull the stops out to make it visual, and we delivered on that."
Light & Sound Design delivered the bulk of the tour's lighting per lighting designer Patrick Woodroffe's specifications. The lighting rig features three circular trusses with Icon automated luminaires and High End Systems Studio Colors(R). Using Christian Choi as his US liaison, Woodroffe was able to give design directions from his home in England. "I started a month before the show started with Patrick laying out everything and drafting it," Choi explains. "The coolest part about the project is that we designed it all in WYSIWYG, so I was able to send screen shots to Patrick online. Since they were in 3D, I was able to take shaded view, which are semi-good renderings, and make jpegs out of them. Then I would create a web page full of them so Patrick could see every day's progress in the plot. From them, he could approve it and just call me up or email me to let me know if he wanted to change or add something."
Choi also took digital photos of the trussing and the lights and put those shots of the rig's progress on his website as well. "I would do this on a daily basis," Choi says. "Patrick also sent me Mark Fisher's set renderings with a drawing of how the plot should look and where the lights were supposed to be positioned. I kept track of the changes and communicated those needs to LSD. Mark's sets are really incredible--the cushions and the chandelier, and especially the lava lamp--Cher really liked that. Coincidentally, the High End Systems Studio Spots had the lava gobos in them, so it really worked out well. Lighting the lava lamp with the lava gobos and putting colors in there and then throwing it slightly out of focus made it really look like a lava lamp. Cher was just astounded."
Once production rehearsals began in Las Vegas, Choi and lighting director Jim Straw began work on the show's cueing. "Christian is a lot faster on the Wholehog than I am," Straw says. "So we programmed it together because I was going to take it out on the road."
Choi and Straw worked on setting up the console before production rehearsals began. "We spent a lot of time at the beginning justreally refining the whole palette structure, which I always do when I program shows," Choi says. "I always make sure the palettes, effects, and groupings are laid out meticulously, so when it comes time to program the show, it goes so much faster."
When Woodroffe arrived, they were ready to go. "We started off with a sanctuary scene, which was kind of dark and dramatic with a gothic and theatrical feel," Woodroffe explains. "That went into a more upbeat rock section and next was the Unplugged section: Cher by herself, very natural, on a stool. It ends up in a big rave section, which is how she is today. The show covers all the different periods of her life, so there is also a lot of video footage.
"It was a great idea, but once we got into rehearsal, the consensus was that we wanted less of a theatre feel at the beginning and more rock-and-roll, so then we needed a lighting system to go with that," Woodroffe continues. "By that time we had a pretty good show, but we brought in extra lights to lay over the show that we had. At that point, however, I had to go back to England for the Rolling Stones shows in London."
So Jeff Johnson, who had been the lighting designer for Cher's 1992 tour, took over the design for the rest of the show. "In the end, we did come up with a very theatrical show--it's sort of a celebration of the icon that is Cher," Woodroffe says. "Jeff used to work with Cher and knows her director very well, so he stayed for the first week of the tour.
"I basically took Patrick's looks, which were really great, and added to them," Johnson says. "There were a couple of songs that were added after Patrick had gone that we did on our own, but for the most part it was truly a co-design. I just took his base looks and built upon them."
"Jeff was in great hands with Jim, our very able lighting director from Australia," Woodroffe says. "Christian did a fantastic job of programming the show and an even more fantastic job of bringing in the second Wholehog console and rewriting all this extra lighting equipment under very difficult conditions."
Johnson added more High End Systems Cyberlights(R) and VL5 Arc(TM) luminaires. "I've worked with her choreographer/director, Dorian Sanchez, on a lot of projects over the years and she's wonderful. She has a lot of input during the programming sessions, and we all felt that Cher's show needs to be a real beamy, old time rock-and-roll-type show. They like that, they like a lot of saturation. Adding the VL5Arcs gave me the moving capabilities and the ACL looks for the show," says the lighting designer. "It's the Cher show and everything else is background. The main emphasis is always on her. It's not like a traditional rock show, where you're lighting the whole band all the time. You don't want to upstage her at all. Even though they want all this production, you have to keep that in mind when you light it. So Dorian has a lot of input during the programming sessions. Although we didn't have much time, I'd worked with Christian before and Jim has done a great job. He's a great find. I can't say enough about my crew and LSD."
On the road, Straw operates two Wholehog II consoles. "When we added more lighting, we took a copy from the first disk and put it into the second desk so the whole cue structure would be the same," Choi explains. "A lot of the changes looked good, so we were able to strike the right balance between the theatrical and rock looks. They got a really nice show from Patrick and Jeff."
The two Wholehog II consoles, and a wing console are all MIDI-linked. "There's a main board and a side board, which is the one we use to run the additional fixtures including the Cyberlights, the floor lights, and the Vari-Lites," Straw explains. "The main console runs the three rings, the back and upstage truss, the star cloth, and what's left of the generic lighting. It's a very simple show to run because the Wholehog is such a fantastic desk--it can do everything."
Straw also calls the show's nine followspots. "While it is gobo-intensive, it's basically a very simple, pretty show with lots of rich saturated colors," he says. "We also try to take the video into account as much as we can because there is always something on one of the three screens. The center screen is like a set piece because it's so big and bright. That was an interesting obstacle to overcome, balancing between that and the lighting system at the beginning, but it didn't take long for us to sort it out."
The show is now touring Europe, and Cher is scheduled to perform in Atlantic City on New Year's Eve. "Jeff did a wonderful job of sewing it all together and they now have the show they deserve--a really big, ballsy rock-and-roll show," Woodroffe concludes. "It wouldn't have been possible without the crew from LSD, particularly the crew chief, Bobby Madison. Occasionally, you get these situations where you end up changing the lighting system during rehearsals, and the fact that the crew handled all of that so uncomplainingly and professionally is a real credit to them."
Director/choreographer: Dorian Sanchez
Production manager: Omar Abderrahman
Tour manager: Dave Russell
Stage manager: Malcolm Weldon
Set designer: Mark Fisher
Lighting design: Patrick Woodroffe, Jeff Johnson
Design assistant: Christian Choi
Lighting director: Jim Straw
Lighting crew chief: Bob Madison
Lighting technicians: Gretchen Fields, Tom McGlinch, James Keegan, Marty Langley
Video director: Kate Ferris
Video crew chief: Bruce Ramos
Video technicians: Dave Neugebauer, Jay Strasser, Mike Pentz, Troy Baccheschi
Head rigger: Garland Purdy
Head carpenter: Frank Carra
Production coordinator: Melanie Paulk
Carpenter/rigger: Kurtis Grossin
Rigger: Scott Chase
Carpenter: Peter Turchyn
Props: Michael "Beef Boy" Garrigan
FOH sound engineer: Mike Keating
Monitor engineer: Bob Bickelman
Sound technicians: Nile Wood, J. Summers
Sound supplier: Clair Brothers
Video supplier: Nocturne/Van Jarvis
Fiber-optic curtain: Advanced Lighting Services
Bungee rigging: Branam Enterprises/Joe Branam, Norbert Philips, Nobe Arden
Inflatables: Air Artists
Soft goods:PW Stage Productions, Ltd.
Set construction: Tait Towers/Michael Tait and Winky Fairorth; T.E.N./Scott Christiansen
Lighting suppliers: Light & Sound Design/Nick Jackson; VLPS
Lighting equipment (2) Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II consoles with expansion wings (42) High End Systems Studio Spot automated luminaires (48) High End Systems Studio Color(R) automated luminaires (27) High End Systems Cyberlight automated luminaires (28) Vari-Lite VL5 Arc(TM) automated luminiares (36) PAR-64s (8) Single cell cyc lights (16) ETC Source Fours (8) Mole-Richardson eight-light Molefays (8) LSD CycMag color changers (4) Lycian HMI 1,200W followspots (18) Diversitronic 3,000W strobes (4) Reel EFX DF-50 smoke machines