Hugh Vanstone Lights Bombay Dreams

“It's as if I've been saving up all these bright colors for years, and now found the perfect show to get them all out,” says British lighting designer Hugh Vanstone, talking about his sumptuous palette for Bombay Dreams, the new musical produced by Andrew Lloyd Weber, Shekar Kapur, and the Really Useful Theatre Company at London's Apollo Victoria Theatre. Bombay Dreams opened on June 19, 2002, and has audiences singing along to hits like “Shakalaka Baby” (now released as a single in the UK).

A behind-the-scenes look at India's colorful Bollywood film industry, Bombay Dreams was written by Meera Syal, with a score by the well-known Indian film composer A.R. Rahman (whose records outsell Madonna and Britney Spears put together, reports Vanstone). The lavish decor and costume design is by Mark Thompson, with sound design by Mick Potter. “This is my first big dance musical since a touring production of Godspell,” adds Vanstone (whose musical adventures include Dr. Dolittle, also directed by Bombay Dreams stager Steven Pimlott).

Moving back and forth between the slums of Bombay and the glamour of Bollywood, Bombay Dreams is filled with spectacular production numbers featuring Indian-inspired choreography by Farah Kahn and Anthony van Last. The plot tells the story of Akaash, a young dreamer from the slums who is hell-bent on making it big in the movie industry. His rise to the top (including a troubled love affair with the daughter of a movie tycoon) takes him into a world driven by money, power, and corruption, where there is no longer an escape into the fantasy of the movies.

Creating a credible Bombay was the designers' first task. “Mark Thompson had not been to Bombay, so it was natural that his early attempts were those of a Westerner looking at the city,” explains Vanstone. “After he made a trip there, he started over and stripped back a lot of detail. He wanted to be careful not to design a post-colonial British version of Bombay.” For instance, a large sewer pipe, where Bombay's poorest live, reappears in a film set depicting the slums, as brutal reality and the illusion of cinema collide within the context of the story.

One of the challenges for both Thompson and Vanstone was the lack of wing space in the theatre. The stage is wide yet shallow, with barely 5' (1.5m) on either side of the proscenium opening. A pool of water (with a circular truss overhead) sits with its center at the proscenium line, meaning that much of the action takes place on a front apron. “There is a lot of water in the show, so the set has a fiberglass floor with a drainage system,” notes Vanstone, who was able to use the water as a canvas for his rainbow of light.

The larger set pieces are winched up and out of the way, as there is no storage space on the ground. One scenic piece that flies in and out is a tiny scale model of the Bombay skyline that twinkles in the background of some scenes. Built by Howard Eaton Lighting Ltd, the miniature has fiber-optic light sources behind Plexiglas windows. “Howard Eaton also made some Plexiglas bricks with LEDs to light the pool of water, but when the water level was raised, unfortunately they were drowned and had to be cut,” the LD adds.

“With so much scenery filling the cramped fly tower, there is little room for lighting bars, so we built a canopy that echoes the shape of the apron,” says Vanstone, who used its curved pipes as lighting positions. Located in the same space are other scenic devices, including Triple E Unitrack used for downstage curtains and powered by a Stage Technologies Big-Tow winch, and a rain pipe.

Vari-Lite Europe provided an automated and conventional lighting rig that includes 18 VL1000 luminaires (which Vanstone finds excellent and extremely reliable), eight VL2402 and 29 VL5B wash lights, and 20 VL6C spot units. Describing this rig as “heavily tungsten-based, without a lot of arc sources,” Vanstone relied on the tungsten to light the Asian skin tones of the performers. “All the ‘people light’ is tungsten,” he notes.

The VL6C units are hung overhead in a circular pattern over the track that drives a large staircase, while a block of five VL5B units are hung very close together dead center over the pool of water. “These can be used in parallel, like a light curtain, or fan out for a wider spread,” Vanstone explains. Additional VL5Bs and VL1000s, Vari-Lite's newest product, are on side ladders that fly out to allow scenery to move on and off stage.

The lighting package includes over 300 ETC Source Four ellipsoidals and PARs, and 28 DHA Lighting PAR-56 Digital Light Curtains (DLC), eight of which are fitted with pitching yokes and two double gobo rotators, also from DHA. Used in two groups, the pitching DLCs provided Vanstone with general-purpose backlight, while the standard DLCs are used to light the cyc which comprises a layer of black gauze in front of rear-projection material with a bounce cloth behind it. The gauze helps the cyc look dark in night scenes when there is no light on the RP screen.

“Adjusting the DLCs' focus allows me to concentrate the heat of the light at the top, middle, or bottom of the cyc, producing color gradations from top to bottom. This is extremely useful in a situation like this where space is at a premium,” says Vanstone. Thomas cyc units (in dark blue, red, and sky blue) are located at the top and bottom of the cyc. “They are in case we get stuck in a color and need a transition color while the DLCs reset,” the LD adds.

The DLCs have a 16-color scroll (R00 clear, Rosco color correction range RC3202, RC3204, RC3442, RC3441, and RC3407, plus R40, R21, R22, R19, R25, R358, R346, R83, R95) ranging from sunrise to sunset, with a few special effect colors. The R40 (Light Salmon) clouds are used to streak the skyline as the heat of the sun breaks into the early morning sky at the end of the show.

The rig also includes two MDG Atmosphere haze generators, two Le Maitre low-smoke generators, three Colour Arc 2kW xenon followspots, VSFX cloud projectors, and 32 Wybron Coloram scrollers (with R00, L201, L161, L108, R78, R69, R20, R26, Lee HT175, L111, R76, R46, R357, R81, R49, and R95). Used primarily as crosslight, the R00 and L201 add sparkle to the vivid colors of the sets and costumes.

Vanstone added four Martin Professional MAC 2000 Performance luminaires with arc sources. These are hung front-of-house on the mezzanine rail, to light a series of large film posters that appear onstage at various times. “I needed frontlight with framing shutters to light the posters, and for various animated effects using the rotating effects wheel and glass gobos,” he notes.

Four racks of ETC Sensor dimmers, supplied by London's Stage Electrics, were installed last February, at the tail end of the run of Starlight Express, the previous tenant at the Apollo Victoria, bringing the facility up-to-date, reducing the venue's dimmer rooms from two to one, and helping relieve some of the theatre's space problems.

While there are a number of moving lights in his rig, “You don't see them moving a great deal,” Vanstone says. “They are used for static looks and quite a few color crossfades and chases. When we do change focus on the VL5Bs, for example, they slowly drift from one position to another without the audience being too conscious of it.”

A Vari*Lite Virtuoso console, programmed by Andy Voller, controls all of the show lighting. David Holmes served as assistant lighting designer, working with production electrician Fraser Hall and chief Vari-Lite technician Chris Dunford.

Much of Vanstone's use of color comes in the Bollywood production numbers, which he describes as “different from the rest of the show. Their style is more studio-oriented, with epic dance sequences, as if we are on the set of a movie being made. Almost like Busby Berkeley with an Indian accent.”

In fact, to create the look of a Bollywood studio, Vanstone brought in some old Mole-Richardson 2kW and 4kW fresnels that were found in the basement of the London Palladium (“When they took out the old revolve in the theatre and Fraser rescued them,” Vanstone adds). Once again, Howard Eaton proved useful in re-wiring the fixtures. Hung on a bamboo frame, they are the perfect touch for Bollywood. Vanstone also used “recycled” festoons of colored lamps once used in the recently closed London production of Cats. “After 20 years, they have just the right tatty look for us,” he says.

In a prison scene, a multi-level grid of cells is set against the back wall rear-projection screen lit with colored breakup patterns by Apollo. Each cell also has a pendant-style fixture and some birdies to add to what Vanstone calls “a Jailhouse Rock look with lots of movement and color.”

Adding color to an already lavish wedding scene, Vanstone bathes the stage in purple (Lee HT707 in Source Four PARs to create a broad wash that is used a good deal throughout the show) and amber (R21) from the DLCs, in addition to the VL6 units with breakup gobos, creating one of the most colorful moments in the show. Crosslight (no color or L201) helps accent the actors, while the cyc is lit in a combination of colors, including Rose Indigo (R358) and Medium Blue-Green (R95).

One of Vanstone's favorite lighting moments is at the top of Act II for the song “Chaiyya Chaiyya” (one of the composer's biggest hits, taken from the popular film Dil Se). “I created a giant pattern on the floor of the stage using 20 Source Fours,” he explains. “It looks like railroad ties radiating from the center of the stage, since the scene in the film takes place on a train.” Each of the Source Fours is on a separate channel so they can come on in sequence, or chase, as a large staircase moves around onstage, with VL6s (no color) providing top light on the stairs. “In the first part of this number the dancers simply move through these beams of light, with the only color being the difference between tungsten and arc light,” says Vanstone, who added more color as the song progressed. “It is like a Bollywood joke, where the entire cast, including all 24 chorus members, changes costumes in the middle of the number,” he adds. The chorus girls re-enter in pink costumes, and the lighting follows suit, with pinks and blues doing circular color chases in the VL6Cs, against a dark blue (R83) cyc.

In addition to the colorful rig onstage, there is also color in the auditorium thanks to recently restored architectural coves, or soffits, that run along the sides of the orchestra level of this historic theatre that was built in 1929. These originally were backlit using incandescent lamps in amber and aquamarine to create an underwater look. These have been replaced with a custom DMX-controllable LED system (987 fixtures with 83,895 LEDs in 160 controllable groups using 643 channels of DMX) designed and installed by the UK firm of Hoare Lea Lighting. The LED fittings and circuit boards are housed within an aluminum extrusion with a polycarbonate diffuser cover.

“There are many channels of house lights,” comments Vanstone. “Maybe even more than for the rig onstage!” A grandMA ultra light console from MA Lighting is used to run the house lights. Located in the lighting control booth, the grandMA is triggered by the Virtuoso running the show.

There are a few moments when the LED house lights combine with the theatrical lighting and the result is magical. One such moment is when the lovers kiss and “fireworks” explode, wrapping the audience in a cocoon of color that is pure Bollywood.

Contact the author at elgreaux@primediabusiness.com.