One look at a Romare Bearden collage--Opening at the Savoy, say, with its jamming musicians cooking up visual jazz--and you can practically taste the music of Bearden's friend, Duke Ellington. The Bearden-Ellington friendship continues (symbolically, that is) with the new musical Play On!
With Cheryl L. West's book wrapped around two dozen tunes popularized by Ellington, and a look indebted to Bearden's images of African-American life, the show debuted last September at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, CA, then moved to Broadway last month.
Director Sheldon Epps came up with the idea. Play On! relocates characters and themes from Shakespeare's great comedy of disguise, Twelfth Night, to the 1940s and "the magical kingdom of Harlem." Epps picked James Leonard Joy to design scenery, Marianna Elliott to create costumes, and LD Jeff Davis to devise sensational, but carefully blended, three-dimensional color.
Behind those very bright highlights, Davis notes, "there's a whole smoky, dark background, as in a lot of Bearden's work." It's the same tonal richness as evoked by "Mood Indigo," "Solitude," and "I Ain't Got Nothin' But the Blues," all sung in Play On!
"When Jeff took a look at the Bearden collages," Epps recalls, "he was both excited and a little intimidated. There's just so much color, so much rich energy there. It was a real challenge for him to figure out how to support it all, and not fight it."
Bearden's "big blues and lavenders" take the lead in Play On! To Davis, "they make his work sparkle." Elliott's costume palette, while aggressive and boldly patterned, is warmer, with splashes of bright yellow popping out against the sleekness of Joy's unit set. While throwing warm light on the costumes, Davis aimed enough blues at Joy's blue stage floor to keep it the color the designers meant it to be.
Joy's set is dominated by four transparent columns covered in Miracryl, "a more resilient, vibrant look than mirrored Mylar," Davis says. Each column displays various vertical scenic panels, depicting in Beardenesque fashion a Harlem street scene, the Cotton Club, and other locales.
The mirrors meant Davis and company "had to make the show look good from 360. With a normal proscenium show, you can do backlight upstage of the actors for halo effects or whatever. Here, you're seeing their backs and everything from very skewed angles. So I was always conscious of the total picture."
The Miracryl was tricky, but "like any mirror, when it's not reflecting anything it goes black," says Davis. Which meant "unless we lit a panel inside the Miracryl box, it went black," lending some welcome contrast to the Bearden-inspired color explosions.
The mirrored surfaces ruled out any kind of low lighting position onstage; otherwise, the light would be reflected in its entirety in a piece of mirror somewhere else. Originally the scenic panels within the columns were to be mounted on periaktois that turned mechanically. At the Globe, Play On! ended up with manual sliding tracks, in Davis' estimation "a better, more fluid, more interesting" solution.
"The things I felt restrained by [at the Globe] were basically color choices," says Davis. "I'm of the old school that learned how to do lighting when you had to mix color, as opposed to putting 11 colors in a scroller and picking one. I enjoy mixing color. Because the light plot was relatively small, my only problem was simple: I ran out of colors. There were points in the dance numbers (choreographed by Mercedes Ellington, granddaughter of Duke) where I had nothing left to do-where I knew there should be seven more cues in a sequence, but I said, 'Let's hit the big moments and leave it at that.' "
Davis notes that at the Old Globe his rig ran around 250 units. For Broadway, he says, "the unit totals have not really changed that much. What we've really done is add moving lights. Most of those are hung inside the Miracryl boxes. It's not necessarily because they can move, because I don't really need them to do that. I need them to do nice, punchy color." Also added are five Vari*Lite(R) VL6 automated spot luminaires "to light the actors," says Davis. "It was really a matter of finding a wash unit to do the scenery and then something that was more specific to do the actors."
The only other major change, the LD notes, is that "I've added 40 Wybron Colorams to the pipe ends, and their equivalent washes in front of the house, so I can get the extra color variation." On Broadway, the LD has all the colors he wants or needs.
The show is run off an ETC Obsession 1500 console; "We're doing the moving lights off an Obsession ML," adds Davis. Play On! opened at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on March 20.