C olorful light swirls through a seductive world of Latin nightclubs and sexy salsa singers in Quien Mato A Hector Lavoe? (Who Killed Hector Lavoe?), a musical play based on the life of late Puerto Rican salsa sensation Hector Lavoe. Written and directed by Pablo Cabrera, with sets by John Scheffler, costumes by Gloria Saez, and lighting by Sarah Sidman, the show opened in July 1999 at the 47th Street Theatre (home of the Puerto Rican Travelling Theatre Company) in New York City.
After running in New York through mid-February 2000, the production went on to a three-week engagement at the Palace des Bellas Artes in San Juan, PR, with plans for an international tour to follow this spring and summer. Why such success for a show performed completely in Spanish?
"There is a huge market for this production," explains Sidman, who designed the lighting for the New York production as well as the tour. "The writer is from Puerto Rico and has tapped into a vernacular of language and music that brings back memories of home for a lot of people in New York."
For the non-Puerto Rican members of the audience, one attraction is the great score. The musical supervisor is Johnny Pacheco, a Grammy-nominated salsa king with 10 gold records to his credit. "The songs are familiar," Sidman confirms. "The people know the music and the performers. They knew Hector Lavoe."
Scheffler's set switches back and forth from urban environments with brick walls to the glitzy interiors of nightclubs. It actually flips around, with a faux brick wall (flanked by two real brick walls of the theatre) on one side and colorful Mylar on the other. "We are trying to go for the look of 1979," says Sidman, indicating the height of Lavoe's career and the era of the great salsa singers that performed with the Fania All Stars.
The musical scenes are performed on a very shallow stage with a rotating band platform (a turntable pushed by the stagehands) set against the purple, orange, and hot pink Mylar. "The stage is so shallow that the dancers and singers have only one and a half feet of space in front of the band platform," notes Sidman, who was challenged not only with the highly reflective surface of the Mylar, but also the lighting positions available in such a narrow space that is also very high. "It is a tight squeeze space-wise. There is not an ounce of space left up in the grid," says Sidman. For the concert scenes, she used five Vari*Lite(R) VL5(TM) automated lumin aires to help create depth and a variety of looks in this very limited area onstage, as well as highlight the walls and the backup singers. Moving lights were not used in Lavoe's concerts at the time, so Sidman limits their movement. "I move them when no one is looking, mainly to focus attention and work with the color in the set and costumes," she says. "The men in the show are wearing pinkish jackets that take the color beautifully."
At the end of each act, she takes a little artistic license and allows more movement to complement the dancing. There is also a 16" motor-driven mirror ball hung over the audience and lit with ETC Source Four ellipsoidals equipped with City Theatrical top hats and irises, and gelled with GAM 105 (Antique Rose). A Reel EFX DF-50 Diffusion(TM) hazer helps create shadows and atmosphere for the moving lights in the big production numbers. One 10-degree Source Four serves as a followspot on the principal singer.
For a number in an after-hours club in the Bronx, Sidman added lots of patterns and haze to create the right mood. Her patterns include Apollo K-Max Shatter Light as well as GAM breakups of tenement windows for some of the urban scenes, plus Rosco's tropical leaves to indicate the Puerto Rican locales. These are projected onto the brick walls with Lee 154 (Pale Rose) for warmth.
In contrast to the big production numbers, some of the songs are more intimate and introspective. For one of these, Sidman uses just one Source Four ellipsoidal with an iris as a single top special on the singer, mixed with blue in the Vari*Lites and the light from the followspot. "The blue is cool with a metallic edge. Only the Vari*Lites can provide a color like this," Sidman notes.
The shape of the stage continues to change, with the wall splitting open at one point into a "V" shape to create a hospital room lit with templates of grilled windows. At the end of the show, a hospital bed is set against one of the brick walls to indicate the isolation and sadness at the end of Lavoe's life. Sidman pulls out the lights until there is just the soft glow of three instruments as small spots on the actors' faces.
The action jumps out of the 70s and moves both forward and backward in time, going as early as the 1960s when Lavoe was still living in Puerto Rico, then right up to the early 90s and the time of his death in New York City. These non-musical scenes are like memories of other moments in Lavoe's life and are lit mostly with a battery of ETC Source Four ellipsoidals (there are approximately 100 in the rig) as well as a dozen Altman 8" fresnels with Rosco 83 (Medium Blue) as wash lights, and Altman T3 striplights with Lee 09 (Pale Amber Gold), GAM 850 (Primary Blue), and clear to provide downlight wall washes.
There are also five channels of practicals built into the set to help provide variety: two channels of pearl light strands in a fan shape on the set, and three channels of A-lamps mounted under the set. An ETC Express 125 console provides control for both the moving lights and conventionals. Sidman did her own programming.
"For quick shifts in the action, the lighting often indicates the change of location, mood, or time, with the addition of templates, or a change in tone or color," she says. In the musical scenes, the lighting is focused more tightly, highlighting the band and singers and creating the mood of a hot nightclub. For the dramatic scenes, Sidman opens up the look and adds the side brick walls to her canvas, or bright shafts of backlight mixed with templates to draw attention away from the band.
While much of the color in the show comes from the Vari*Lites, Sidman added keynote colors to many of the dramatic scenes, such as Rosco 397 (Pale Grey) for the hospital scenes. Lee 201 (CT blue) and Lee 206 (1/4 CTO) mix with a dichroic peach from the Vari*Lites for the domestic scenes in Lavoe's home. Rosco 119 (Light Hamburg Frost) is used in some of the units without color.
The lighting for the tour of Quien Mato A Hector Lavoe? is an expanded version of the New York production. To begin with, the stage at the Bellas Artes is almost 50' (15m) wide while the performance space in New York measured only 20' (6m) across. But it seems only appropriate that Hector Lavoe would have a larger venue for this retrospective of his life and music in his own country, where the audience can pay its respects to a homegrown hero.
LIGHTING DESIGNER Sarah Sidman
MASTER ELECTRICIAN Robert "Rocco" Williams
PRODUCTION ELECTRICIAN/FOLLOWSPOT OPERATOR Duane Monsky
EQUIPMENT SUPPLIERS Production Arts Vari-Lite Inc.
LIGHTING EQUIPMENT (51) ETC Source Four 36 degrees (12) ETC Source Four 26 degrees (30) ETC Source Four 50 degrees (2) ETC Source Four 19 degrees (1) ETC Source Four 10 degrees with followspot handle (5) Vari*Lite VL5s (13) Altman 1,000W 8" fresnels (6) Altman 3-circuit T3 striplights (10) City Theatrical irises (50) City Theatrical top hats for ETC Source Fours (50) City Theatrical half hats for ETC Source Fours (1) 16" motorized mirror ball (1) Reel EFX DF-50 Diffusion hazer (1) ETC Express 125 console (1) remote focus unit (3) ETC Sensor 24x2.4k dimmer packs (in addition to theatre's Strand 32x4k dimmers) Color media from GAM Products, Lee Filters, and Rosco