Grease is a show that seems frozen in time, so it should come as no surprise that this celebration of teenage life in the golden age of the 1950s has finally hit the ice rink circuit. Grease on Ice, a Feld Entertainment and Troika Organization co-production featuring Olympic medalist Nancy Kerrigan, is directed by Jerry Bilik, co-directed/choreographed by Barry Lather, and features scenic design by James Fouchard.
Fouchard, a veteran of numerous touring musicals, is no stranger to Grease. He designed the set for the current national Troika tour, and started on Grease on Ice in late June of 98. "I had kind of a whirlwind design period," he admits with a smile. Which isn't surprising, since he was also doing the scenic design for the ill-fated Jolson: The Musical at the same time. The design specifications for Grease on Ice were finalized at a white model meeting on August 5, and then Fouchard was ready to complete the drafting phase of the project and go into the scenic shop to begin fabrication.
This is the first ice show that Fouchard has worked on, and he found it to be quite a challenge. "You're dealing with a very, very large environment," he begins. "And you're dealing with an environment that is mostly ice. It's like working on a thrust stage." Since the staging area is so much larger, Fouchard found that he had to incrementally increase the size of his scenic pieces. "The challenge for me was trying to make choices about where to expand and build up the spectacle," he explains. "But then again, in an ice show, they're all skating while they're doing their dialogue, so you've already expanded it."
One of the legendary scenes in Grease is the transformation of a run-down jalopy into a hot rod called Greased Lightning. "It's always been a dilemma in a stage show of what to do with the car," Fouchard admits. For this project, the designer enlisted the help of Mark Freddes, the scenic coordinator of Hagenbeck & Wallace, a scenic division of Feld Entertainment.
"The whole number with Greased Lightning focused on a transformation, which was the most difficult thing I had to deal with on the show," Fouchard notes. After consulting with Freddes, the pair began work on a fiberglass replica of a 1957 Chevy Bel Air. "I did a series of sketches where I basically took away a lot of the most obvious signature features of the vehicle, essentially dumbing it down," Fouchard explains. "We then created a stretch Lycra fabric skin painted dirty white with gray primer and rusty patches that went over the fiberglass. Through a combination of pieces that are added and removed, as well as through the use of hydraulics and pistons, we transform not only the color of the car, but its shape as well."
Greased Lightning also had to move independently over the ice, which wasn't easily accomplished. "Basically, they took what was a fiberglass replica of the car with a rudimentary steel frame, then restructured it into a driveable metal chassis," he explains. "They then installed a steering and a drive mechanism. The car used a hydraulic drive, which is very silent and maneuverable."
Greased Lightning isn't the only scenic marvel that Fouchard wheels out onto the ice. Another main ingredient of the show is the massive Burger Palace set, which echoes the futuristic, space-age graphic designs of the 1950s. Fouchard's Burger Palace tops out at over 28' tall, with a donut-shaped base and a circular canopy and features a center pylon that rises with an enormous rotating neon yellow-and-red Burger Palace sign on top. "They built it so that it's totally maneuverable on the ice," Fouchard begins. "It can also rotate on its axis 360 degrees without moving." The Burger Palace has a self-contained drive system, which is operated by using the handles on the soda fountain taps, and includes pieces that transform and become interactive, performance-oriented obstacles for the skaters. "With the materials you use, you have to be very aware of your environment," says Fouchard. "If it's a surface that they're going to skate on, you've got to use something like 'slick,' which is a synthetic covering that the blades can skate on. If it's something the performers are going to stand on and you don't want them to slip on their blades, you have to use different kinds of rubber tread." With performers skating on counter tops and jumping over seats, this isn't an ordinary Grease set. "This Burger Palace is something you probably couldn't do on the stage," Fouchard admits. "But you could on ice, so why not?" he says with a laugh.
Working on an ice show also means numerous considerations that most productions don't even have to consider. "Moisture is something you have to be constantly aware of," Fouchard confides. "All the backdrops are done in synthetics, because they'll always be wet, for weeks and months at a time." Natural fabrics are out, since they get moldy or rot, and even the masking curtains are made out of synthetic velour. Acrylic and lacquer finishes are the only ones allowed, since they won't bleed, and almost everything is aluminum, to stave off rust and corrosion.
Fouchard also makes tantamount use of color in his scenic design. "Everything either tends to go toward a neon or a fluorescent, hot kind of look," he says. The eye-catching sets also used a fair amount of chrome trim--10 miles of it, to be exact. "We're not just a musical comedy here," Fouchard notes. "We're a musical comedy on ice in a large arena. We have to pump things up."