West Side Story at a resident theatre? It's enough to make a designer faint. Still, more and more theatres are featuring big musicals because they bring in big audiences and big money. In that case, there's nothing to do but forge ahead and find creative ways to make it happen. Such was the case with set designer Troy Hourie, when he took on the Arthur Laurents — Leonard Bernstein — Stephen Sondheim classic, which was produced by Syracuse Stage for a run last December.

Working with director-choreographer Anthony Salatino's dictum that the production should move fluidly, with no long scene changes, Hourie, working with a budget of approximately $6,500 for materials, created a unit set that, with small additions, represents each of the play's scenes. The designer, who prides himself on working well within a given budget, began searching out the right visual source material to depict violent, gang-ridden, 1950s New York. “My research started with me photographing things that represent New York — the fire escapes, the concrete, and the signs,” he says. “What do you see when you're walking down the street in New York? My other inspiration was [painter] Robert Rauschenberg — he epitomizes New York at the time [of West Side Story] and he used the materials of New York in his work.” (Hourie put these ideas into his rather complete set models, which are contrasted above with actual production photos.)

In fact, Hourie's set was a kind Rauschenberg homage, with a number of elements, including a car hood, basketball backboard, ladders, a fragment of a sign (“Caution: Watch Your Step”), and a gate unit, among other pieces, set against a back wall and deck painted in an Abstract Expressionist style. Virtually everything else was flown in, including a bridge unit for the Act I finale and two layers of streamers for the “Dance at the Gym” sequence.

Exceptions to this arrangement were the balcony on which the show's lovers sing “Tonight,” which was built into the stage right unit; Doc's store, a bar unit which came from below; and Maria's bedroom, which rolled out of the stage left wall. “The bedroom was the hardest part,” Hourie says. “For me wagon units are a kind of cliché. But this one worked; I don't think anyone realized that a set piece would come out of there.” Without many laborious scene changes, the musical was allowed to swiftly follow its violent course.

The sets were built by Syracuse Stage. “They're a very good staff to work with,” says Hourie. “I relied very much on their scenic art staff; their painters are amazing. I traveled to the theatre five times [during the build] which isn't usual, but I also was designing a show at the Hangar and at Cornell University in Ithaca, so I was nearby.” The designer/staff collaboration created a notably detailed set that helped rescue West Side Story from warhorse status, reinstating it as the original work it once was.

The rest of the design team for West Side Story included Randall E. Klein (costumes), A. Nelson Ruger IV (lighting), and Jonathan Herter (sound). The production, which was one of Syracuse Stage's biggest hits ever, ran through January 5. Next for Hourie are Caryl Churchill's Top Girls at the Guthrie Theatre; a new play, September Shoes, at Geva Theatre in Rochester, and L'Amore dei Tre Rei at Sarasota Opera. An earlier design, The West End Horror, a Sherlock Holmes pastiche done for Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, Long Island, has been picked up for a resident theatre tour that may end up on Broadway in 2004. If all goes well, it will be the designer's Broadway debut.