A West End Theatre Gets a Colorful New Look

London's Apollo Victoria Theatre has had a checkered career. It opened in 1930, under the name New Victoria Cinema; as one of that era's fabled movie palaces, its adornments included a mighty Wurlitzer organ and a balcony that could seat 2,500. Comparisons to New York's Radio City Music Hall would not have been out of order.

After 40 years of service as a cinema, the New Victoria was converted into a legitimate theatre, named the Apollo Victoria, in 1981; early bookings included concerts by such stars as Shirley Bassey, Cliff Richard, and Sammy Davis Jr., not to mention a revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music, starring Petula Clark. In 1984, the theatre underwent substantial renovation (losing 1,000 seats) to accommodate Andrew Lloyd Webber's roller-skating extravaganza Starlight Express, a huge success which ran for the next 17 years.

Starlight Express closed in January 2002. The new tenant at the Apollo Victoria is another musical, Bombay Dreams, a spectacle about India's Bollywood film industry, produced (although not written) by Andrew Lloyd Webber. In preparation for the opening of Bombay Dreams, the Apollo Victoria underwent an interior renovation that includes a stunning, and technologically innovative, lighting design.

The theatre is owned by Clear Channel Entertainment, which commissioned London-based architects Jaques Muir & Partners to handle the interior restoration. One of Muir's mandates was to replace the original interior lighting, which consisted of 3,500 GLS lamps on two separate circuits of aquamarine and amber light. Although this made for a warmly theatrical ambiance, the lamps were expensive, ate up power, and were difficult to replace. At the same time, Muir wanted to retain the original visual concept.

Working with Dominic Merritt and Orri Petursson of London-based Hoare Lee Lighting and NJO Technology of Cumbria, England, Muir developed a concept that entailed using custom-designed clusters of LED units. According to Peterssun, “We experimented with various light sources, including cold cathode and xenon festoons, and, finally, LEDs. It was clear straightaway that LEDs were perfect for this, because of the flexibility they would allow for color changing, the high light output compared to cold cathode, and the fact that the wiring would be far simpler, since each LED control unit is individually addressable.”

As a result, 88,000 LEDs are packed into 987 fixtures. There are two fixture types — compact and linear — manufactured by NJO Technology, the company that developed the luminaire fittings, as well as a control device to interface the LED units with four channels of DMX512 (for red, green, blue, and intensity). The LEDs' life is projected to last 25,000 hours, or about 25 years' worth of actual use.

A team from Stage Electrics, led by Nick Ewins, installed the lighting and control system while Bombay Dreams rehearsals were in progress. He says, “There was a requirement from English Heritage to light the auditorium in a similar way to the old system, but to achieve it using a new, unique lighting source, and with modern-day health and safety standards. It was a challenging installation but the results were well worth the time and effort.”

Indeed, the outcome has been spectacular — a multicolored lighting scheme that adds to the building's glamour and provides an ideal prelude to the gaudy spectacle that is Bombay Dreams. The hidden LED clusters, divided into 186 lighting zones arranged around architectural details, allow for an unlimited number of looks before and after the show. The domed ceiling may be lit in, say, pale blue, with parts of the stalls in amber and maroon details, and the translucent alabaster “stalagmite” features picked out in turquoise. Many other combinations are possible. In some cases, the interior lighting can be linked to the show onstage. In selected points during Bombay Dreams, the grandMA ultra light console (from MA Lighting and supplied by AC Lighting) that controls the LEDs is cued from the Vari*Lite® Virtuoso control console that runs the stage show's lighting. In a fireworks scene, the LEDs burst into color, taking the spectacle to the theatre ceiling.

Stage Electrics previously installed four new 72-way ETC Sensor dimmers in 2001; to that was added an entirely new infrastructure, including new socket boxes on both fly floors in the four corners of the stage and a large dim rail patch panel in the front-of-house organ loft, running to the front-of-house lighting positions. The company also installed a Stage Electrics stage management system, incorporating a Howard Eaton Soft Cue system, new sound and communications systems, cable trays, and brackets that precisely position the LEDs. A large DMX address system was created with Dave Rose, the Apollo's technical manager, and Hoare Lee, and was installed by Stage Electrics using proprietary buffer boxes, along with a new circle-front lighting position and cleaners' emergency lighting. Others involved in the project include the main electrical contractor, Fagan Electrical, of Liverpool, England, and Terry Carnes, project manager for Clear Channel.

Says Tom Fagan of Fagan Electrical, “The team succeeded in making it far better than the original. With the LED fixtures, we're running at 5% of the power loading — and they avoid all the hassles and safety problems of replacing lamps in restricted roof voids and tiny spaces behind the architectural features. We have a very satisfied client and now we hope to use the technology on other projects.” Rose adds, “When the first units were installed and turned on, everyone in the theatre just went, ‘Wow!’ The flexibility that this color-changing system gives us, along with the cost and maintenance savings, is absolutely unique in the theatre world.” Fagan concludes, “It has been a very interesting and special project, working the latest technology in a listed building.”

Bombay Dreams is off to a running start, having earned mixed-to-good reviews, with early indications pointing towards box office success. Happily, the theatre that houses it is, once again, a hit, too.

Contact the author at dbarbour@primediabusiness.com.