Abigail Rosen Holmes Lights Cher's Farewell Tour

Who would have guessed that the hottest ticket on the touring circuit this summer would be for the farewell tour of a 56-year-old star who, in her own words, has never fit into any one showbiz mold? Yet, having kicked off in June, Cher's Living Proof tour has proven so successful that she's added shows to her schedule that will keep her on the road until just before Christmas.

And what a show it is. Making her grand entrance atop a chandelier that slowly delivers her to the stage, the diva begins by performing a disco version of U2's “I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For.” Then, right before her latest hit, “Song for the Lonely,” backup dancers remove her headdress and robe to uncover Costume Change Number One: a revealing, midriff-baring vest and beaded harem pants, as more dancers arise from beneath the upper level of the stage to join in the fun.

Acrobats, wrapped in yards of silks secured to the rafters, unravel themselves to the stage through “We All Sleep Alone.” Next, Cher, in a ringmaster's jacket, barks out: “Ladies and gentleman, flaming gentlemen, boys and girls and children of all ages, welcome to the Cher-est show on earth.”

She then disappears backstage and re-enters atop a magnificent puppet elephant, singing “All or Nothing.” For two hours she belts out her hits, taking time in between to change from one stunning costume/wig/headdress to the next while retrospective video clips of her career delight the audience. The set list comprises tunes from the many stages of Cher as well as medleys of older hits like “Half Breed” and “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves.” Images include everything from her early television appearances with Sonny Bono to her videos to scenes showing her with Elton John, the Jackson 5, Liberace, and David Bowie as well as clips from the films Moonstruck, The Witches of Eastwick, Mask, and Silkwood. Recalling her film career via video, she sings “After All,” from the Robert Downey Jr. movie Chances Are.

The show's visual elements are also all similarly woven together. Abigail Rosen Holmes (whose pertinent experience includes designing Janet Jackson's most recent tour as well for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus) signed on for the challenge of lighting the tour. She worked closely with set designer Jeremy Railton and show director/choreographer Doriana Sanchez to make all the elements fit together.

“One of the really fun aspects of this show was the set, because it looks really different from most modern rock sets,” Holmes says. “It's not really a rock set; so many of them are very modern, or stripped down and industrial-looking, all of which are fun to light, but I haven't gotten to light one of these ornate, decorative sets in a long time and it was really enjoyable.”

Holmes particularly enjoyed making use of the set's lanterns, four of which are hung across the stage above the catwalk, with three more per side hung from side trusses outside the main lighting truss. Each has two large, glowing “jewels” with a Vari*Lite® VL2402 shining out of a round copper-colored piece at the bottom.

“Jeremy and I worked together on where the lanterns were placed; he designed the lanterns,” she explains. “Management was very clear from the beginning that all sightlines were to be kept open. I always like to have low sidelight on dancers — it lets you mold the shape of their bodies. Toplight tends to go a little flat on them. Those lanterns allowed us to get some lights down where we really wanted them — as a bonus, they are also integrated into the design and don't stand out as a big chunk of lighting equipment.”

Fitting in all the necessary technical elements was a challenge as well. “It's a bit crowded in the air, but that's true for so many shows nowadays,” Holmes says. “Despite the fact that the whole stage doesn't change during the show, there's a lot going on up there, with all of the flying people, the people on the silks, and the chandelier going up and down. A lot of mechanics support all of that. But there were good lighting positions available, and it worked out quite well. I've lit a couple of circuses and that experience was extremely useful here; fundamentally, the dancers on the silks are doing versions of classic circus acrobatic skills.”

Like the dancers, many scenic elements have to be flown to the correct positions, so Holmes made sure the lighting was hung separately from the scenery wherever possible. “That was intentional; it seemed that, technically, everyone's life would have been difficult if they couldn't move those sections independently,” she says. “It turned out to be a smart choice because the rest of the elements are so complex.”

Responsibility for the set's intricate details rested with Railton, who thoroughly enjoyed the collaborative effort. “The best thing about the show was that Cher was really involved,” he says, “and working with Doriana and Abbey was great. There was a really good connection among us.

“Abbey's design is really intelligent,” he continues. “It delineates each of the songs so it isn't just all about moving lights. She lit each scene beautifully — it's probably the most theatrical music tour that any of us have done. She had a theatre approach to the show rather then just a concert lighting job. We had a lot of fun.”

Sanchez worked out the show's set list during pre-production and rehearsals while Holmes and frequent collaborator Kille Knobel programmed the lighting on an LSD Icon Console. “I love programming with Kille and I was really lucky that she wanted to stay out with the tour as the lighting director,” Holmes says. “There's a lot of textural movement going on in many of the cues, but we worked to make it serve as enhancement. It's not flashing wildly, although there are moments where, if we feel it's appropriate, we do create big hits on the beats. Obviously, you can't do a pop show like this and be minimalist. On the other hand, it should be able to have all of that without being tacky. I hope we managed to achieve appropriately dynamic looks without being flash-and-trash at the same time.”

Holmes points out that it's nearly impossible for anyone in this country to be completely unfamiliar with some aspect of Cher's work; still, she had never seen the diva sing live. “We had already gone through and cued the show but, after the first day that she rehearsed with the band, we realized that we needed to turn all of our looks up several notches,” she says. “She was way more powerful onstage than I had anticipated. She belts those songs out! Everything up there is just to give her a wonderful environment for her to be herself in. But the bottom line is that the show is as strong as it is because she really doesn't need it. She's amazing all on her own.”

Many elements of the design were specifically inspired by Cher herself. “Cher is all girly and glittery and sparkly, so I put in [GAM] Star Strobes because they're fabulous and twinkly and not at all a big rock-type effect,” Holmes explains. “They're very Cher — there's shiny glitter everywhere you look on this tour. Also, her house inspired parts of the design. She has beautiful Mediterranean, medieval, Moorish, and Indian art influences in it and they carry into the design — I used some Arab and Moorish art images and then modified them for some of my gobo art. Also, the lanterns were inspired by some lanterns that hang in one of the Gaudi cathedrals in Spain. So all of that region's art and architecture is reflected in the set.”

Much of the show is bathed in very warm colors, which Holmes explains were driven by the amber color of the lanterns. “They don't really have any shift in them and they almost always have some glow to them,” she says. “Whatever you do with color has to take them into account because they are a constant presence. Having a set with this level of detail means that it has a look and a feel of its own that we had to build around.”

Holmes' equipment for the heavily automated lighting system was chosen based largely on the brightness of each fixture. “I use a lot of different types of lighting equipment, depending on what kind of job I'm working on,” says the LD. “On these larger shows that have video elements, the brightness of the fixture has become incredibly important. In the days when projection was a light projected onto a piece of fabric, we were always brighter than the video and there was huge effort made — or there should have been — by the lighting designer to allow projection to show up. Now these back screens are tremendously bright — to the point where they can easily throw everything you have onstage into silhouette, even when you're using tremendously high amounts of lighting. I love using the [LSD] Icon® automated luminaires, and here their brightness was another factor for choosing them. I also love the Vari*Lite wash lights because they have a beautiful, even field. I have VL2402 automated luminaires in the lanterns and the larger VL2416 automated luminaires up in the rig. Also, to accommodate these big stage sets, the lighting does end up quite high, so these lights have a fairly long throw to reach the stage.

“We take our video very seriously,” Holmes continues. “We absolutely do everything we can to help them make Cher look as if she's being properly lit for television every time she appears on the screen. The crew carries light meters and my fabulous crew chief Ian Tucker checks the house spotlights every day, so we know that her footcandle level and color temperature are consistent every day when the show runs. We run however many spots we need on her to bring her up to the appropriate footcandle level required. We hope that it's as few as possible because it's cleaner and creates fewer shadows, but in some venues it's more.”

Acknowledging that there is no perfect world, the LD says that they try to consistently find the best medium for both video and the audience. “Cher needs to be visually brighter than everything else up there to the eye, and she is. We're careful to make sure she pops out from everything else. It's always a pleasure to work with [video director] Christine [Strand], so finding that balance wasn't too difficult.”

On a daily basis, the diligent lighting crew from Fourth Phase/LSD makes sure these hard-working lights keep working on the road. “My crew is really awesome — it would be horrible to try to do this show without them,” Holmes says. “And John Lobel worked really hard to make sure some of the integrated set lighting would work — he was also kind enough to spend some of his valuable time at the scenic shop keeping an eye on that for me. The tour has wonderful production and stage management — one of the pleasures of working on it was that all of the people there work so hard. There is so much going on that it is really extraordinary that it runs as smoothly as it does.”

Contact the author at cmbmc@earthlink.net.


Show Director
Doriana Sanchez

Lighting Designer
Abigail Rosen Holmes, NyxDesign LLC

Set Designer
Jeremy Railton, Entertainment Design, Inc.

Lighting Director
Kille Knobel

Video Designer
Christine Strand

Tour Manager
Nick Cua

Production Manager
Malcolm Weldon

Production Coordinator
Dana Jaeger

Stage Manager
Frank Carra

Lighting Crew Chief
Ian Tucker

Lighting Crew
Jeremy Schilling, Jason Gangi, Gregg Brooks, John Ramsey, John Amorelli

Head Rigger
Steve Olean

Leti Alcala, Storm Sollars, James Stratton

Video Director
Dave Neugebauer

Assistant Video Director
Deb Collins

Video Engineer
Jason Harvey

Video Crew
Richard Davis, Kurt Verhelle, David Driscol

Head Carpenter
Courtney Jones

Kurt Wagner, Rick Stucker, David Roth, Russell Glen, Ken Kinard, Michael Garrigan (props)

Lighting Supplier
Fourth Phase/LSD, John Lobel

Lighting Equipment

44 LSD Icons
22 LSD Icon Washlights
16 Vari*Lite VL2402s
36 Vari*Lite VL2416s
14 ETC Source Fours
5 L&E 6' Mini-Strips
200 GAM Products Star Strobes
16 PAR-64s
4 Reel EFX DF-50 hazers
8 Lycian Starklite 1.2kW HMI followspots
8 LSD overhung spot seats
2 Total Structures TE014 elliptical truss sections
1 LSD 4' A-type truss section
25 Total Structures 10' Minibeam truss sections
4 8' Total Structures Minibeam truss sections
4 5' Total Structures Minibeam truss sections
4 Minibeam corner cubes
23 8' LSD D3 truss sections
2 6' LSD D3 truss section
2 4' LSD D3 sections
4 LSD D3 cubes
4 10' LSD A-type sections
4 10' Total Structures Minibeam truss sections
4 Columbus McKinnon 1/8-ton chain hoists
2 star drop panels
6 Martin illuminators
1 Clear-Com 20-way intercom system
1 LSD Icon Console
1 LSD Icon Mini Console backup system
2 LSD Icon UGLIs
ETC dimmers
LSD distro