The Encores! series of vintage musicals, seen in concert stagings, has been a popular part of the New York theatre season for several years. However, Encores! has yielded only one Broadway transfer, the wildly successful revival of Chicago. So when New York Times critic Ben Brantley all but demanded a Broadway transfer of the Encores! production of the 1953 musical Wonderful Town, many wondered if it would work. Wonderful Town is a conventional, old-fashioned book musical, which celebrates the Greenwich Village of 1935. (Adapted from short stories by Ruth McKenney, which became the play My Sister Eileen, the show is a genial, nostalgic farce about a pair of sisters from Columbus, OH, who come to New York and find themselves in all sorts of jams.) A strong sense of time and place is vital to the show's success; the book, by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov, and the lyrics, by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, is filled with topical references, and the score by Leonard Bernstein draws on period music for such numbers as “Swing” and “Conga.” Would producers Barry and Fran Weissler really try to pass off a concert production as a full-fledged Broadway show?
As it turned out, any worries were unnecessary, as the production, which opened in November at the Martin Beck Theatre, received some of the season's best reviews.
Donna Murphy is enjoying a triumph as Ruth McKenney, a sardonic young journalist coping with grasping landlords, dismissive editors, not to mention various lechers, kooks, and the army of men chasing after her blonde bombshell sister Eileen. But critics also had plenty of praise for Kathleen Marshall's production, which retains aspects of the concert staging (the orchestra remains onstage) while providing more fully realized scenery (by John Lee Beatty) costumes (by Martin Pakledinaz) and sound (by Lew Mead).
In this situation, Peter Kaczorowski's lighting has an important part to play. In most of his recent musicals (Contact, The Music Man, and The Producers), Kaczorowski's lighting worked intimately with Susan Stroman's direction and choreography: pacing, building, and climaxing the musical numbers. Here, working with director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall (they also collaborated on Kiss Me, Kate), he treats the stage like a canvas, splashing it with warm colors — purples, oranges, yellows, greens, and more. The effect is like looking at vintage, hand-colored postcards of old New York, or a vintage film shot in the older, lusher form of Technicolor®.
In fact, Beatty's set provides Kaczorowski with several canvases. There is, of course, the cyc behind the orchestra. In front of that is a skyline drop, which adjusts itself to different trims from scene to scene. Then there is a scrim in front of the orchestra, as well as several (usually partly transparent) scenic drops, depicting, among other places, Ruth and Eileen's basement apartment, a block on Christopher Street, and the local police station. Beatty's design also includes an array of windows that are, in fact, lightboxes; the LD uses them to expand his color palette.
“Admittedly, I used a fairly wide range of colors,” says Kaczorowski. “And as I cued the show, I tried to consciously utilize each scene's time needs as references for the window boxes — the night scenes have blue windows, the morning scenes have sunrises. “But,” he adds, “other scenes have window colors that aren't completely connected to the situation or time of day. I thought it was important that each look be new and fresh, as if you're seeing a different New York every day.…every scene. [Ruth and Eileen] have moved from Columbus to a new, highly energized and more highly colored world. You know how it is when you move to this city — most people are stunned for months. I know I was.” He pushes the idea of color as visual stimulus even further, lighting the windows in a variety of colors in the first-act finale, “Conga!,” when Ruth, attempting to interview a group of Brazilian naval officers at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, finds herself caught in a wild conga dance.
The windows are designed in several ways, the LD says. “The ones located above the stage are simply framed pieces with RP screen and lekos with [Wybron] scrollers pointed at them. The second kind of window units are placed halfway down the legs — actually built into the hard leg — and since there was no way to get to them [and] you can't backlight them, we built some low-tech bouncelight boxes. We placed the light source to the offstage side of the boxes, then built an enclosure with a bounce board — a trapezoidal-shaped light catcher around the window frame with a narrow-spot PARcan only 4' away. The board is just Masonite, painted white. The light bounces around enough to make an even, very bright field on the back of the window boxes.”
Just as Beatty's set design is layered, so is Kaczorowski's lighting. “I've got [Martin Professional] Mac 2000s concentrated in the areas where the show takes place — the first 12' of the stage. I've got four Macs on the front-of-house truss and two on each of the cross proscenium booms. We also have two [High End Systems] Studio Spots on the balcony rail, chosen because they have no fan noise. That's it for front of house. Then there are four Macs each on the first and second electrics and two each on ladders one and two. We also have two Studio Colors on the third ladder to crosslight all the hanging pieces, with five Studio Colors upstage to wash the hanging buildings in all their different trims, and finally two Studio Colors under the band platform to slash across the gold-leafed bracing.”
With a full orchestra — the largest on Broadway, says Kaczorowski — along with several layers of scenery, and a large cast, the LD was mindful about creating visual overload by overlighting the stage. “It's a matter of putting the right picture together,” he says. “At first, I thought the orchestra would be a bigger part of the picture. John helped out by adding a scrim between the band and the acting area. I do focus on the musicians during the big numbers as well as in transitions, when I want the audience to look at something else while scenery moves around.” Nevertheless the stage picture is often a many-layered thing, with the actors downstage in bright front light, the windows framing the action in saturated color, the skyline gleaming gold, the orchestra partially visible in a deeply saturated wash, and another color wash on the cyc.
In many ways, Kaczorowski's design is the fruit of his longtime work with Marshall at Encores! (she was previously artistic director of the series). With only a few days to get a show on, the LD describes their working method: “As Kathleen says, first instinct, and go. And I prefer to work that way, to get the structure up quickly, then polish. Kathleen rarely says much to me; that's a function of Encores!, where you don't have the time to talk.” During Wonderful Town's rehearsals, he adds, “She would occasionally say something like, ‘That could be moodier, or more saturated.’ But she expects people to do their thing.”
Nevertheless, Kaczorowski's lighting works closely in tandem with Marshall's fast-moving staging. In the scene-setting opening number, “Christopher Street,” the lighting moves nimbly over various groups, picking out gawking tourists, zoot-suited hepcats, shrouded Martha Graham dancers, painters, cops, call girls, bobby-soxers, and tough guys. The number “My Darlin' Eileen,” featuring a chorus line of Irish-dancing cops, is swathed in the requisite green. “Swing,” in which Ruth, acting as a barker for a local jazz club, is transformed from a rhythmless Midwesterner to a scat-singing hipster, features Murphy, isolated in a tightly-framed spot, with the chorus, forming a tight circle around her, washed in purple; in this configuration, the number builds to a hypnotic, finger-popping frenzy.
Control is provided by the Wholehog II, from High End Systems, for the moving lights and Obsession 1500, from ETC, for the conventional units. Gear for the production was supplied by Fourth Phase. Other personnel on the production included associate LD Mick Smith, assistant LDs James Milkey and Ed McCarthy, moving light programmer Josh Weitzman, and production electrician James Fedigan.
In a funny way, Wonderful Town is an anomaly in Kaczorowski's recent work. After several seasons largely devoted to big musicals (as well as the Seattle Opera's Ring Cycle), he's been lighting plenty of straight plays, including Roundabout Theatre Company revivals of “Master” Harold… and the Boys, and The Caretaker, as well as the Broadway staging of this year's Pulitzer Prize-winner Anna in the Tropics. This spring, it's back to the 1930s for him, as he'll light the Roundabout revival of Twentieth Century, a classic show business period farce. Expect another original take on the 1930s.