Stages, a non-profit theatre company in St. Louis, completed a summer production of A Little Night Music — directed by Michael Hamilton — that turned out to be the non-profit company's most successful production to date. Having done the production two decades ago as a much smaller outfit with limited budgets, the group wanted to give it another go, now with much more financial support.
Heralded by St. Louis' own Post-Dispatch as “a treasured dollhouse, thanks to lavish period costumes by Dorothy Marshall Englis, a delicately detailed set by James Wolk, and haunting, midnight-sun lighting by Matthew McCarthy,” (Post-Dispatch, Jun 14, 2007), the production took the small company to new levels.
“This is the third time I've designed Night Music, and each version has been wildly different,” says Wolk of his Stages debut. “The first was in an arena production and red. The second was a very large proscenium design, and we used lots of curtains. The Stages version builds on both of those productions in one major respect: curves. The nature of the waltz music inspired the shape of the set.”
The idea of the overall design was to incorporate some element of fantasy, according to Wolk. “From the very first meeting with Michael, we tried to achieve an elegance to the staging along with a mythological 18th-century world,” he says. “Simplicity, fluidity, elegance were the key elements to achieve.”
The space in which to work posed some challenges, however, due to its many curves, but that ended up working perfectly for this production. “The curved space fits well into waltz scoring and provides the space necessary for the dance sequences,” says Wolk.
Lighting this production required McCarthy, in his 16th season with the company, to use colors based on the costume and scenery. “Dottie and James are amazing artists, and they provided a lovely palette,” he says. “The design was intended to be as lush and layered as the music — very romantic, full of texture and rich colorful tones.” To achieve this, he notes that fades are slow and in support of the music, rather than ever calling attention to the lighting itself. “I try to paint large, full stage pictures that guide the eye to the focal point of the scene, always having deep saturated colors on the peripheral scenic pieces,” he adds. “This helps to make our rather small stage look much larger than it is.”
McCarthy's design also makes extensive use of followspots (from Great Performance Products) set a little brighter than normal for this production. “The lyrics are quite complex, and the singers' facial expressions are critical in following what is a rather confusing plot,” he says. His plot is strictly conventional, using ETC Source Four ellipsoidals with color changers (Wybron color scrollers and CXI units), with a house Strand CD80 SV Dimmer System as well as an ETC Sensor+ Touring Rack, all running on an ETC Expression 3 console.
“This was my 44th show at Stages, yet it was the first time the curved grand drape had been rigged to be an Austrian,” notes McCarthy. “ I was a bit skeptical, but it worked out great. We only had to tail down a few fixtures.”
To dress the period properly, Englis notes that her inspiration came from the visual concept of the show that involved the metaphor of a jewelry box. “In interpreting the piece through this filter, the last act became particularly vivid, with the women's gowns, in particular, designed in jewel-toned, sparkling fabrics, as though they were the jewelry in the box,” says the costume designer of her ninth season at Stages. “We extended the metaphor to the Liebeslieders, at least the women, by putting them in the colors of metallic settings and/or jewel boxes, gold, copper, silver.”
Englis notes that each female character required a very specific silhouette, a choice that was very important to her. “Desiree is all S-curves — sinuous and sensual. Anne is puffy-sleeved, very little girl like,” she says. “Charlotte is all tailoring and knife-edges — very sharp and clean. Madame Armfeldt is a mix of the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s, for a more baroque feeling. Petra is in full-bosom blouses and prints — full of life. Fredrika is in short skirts and schoolgirl shapes.
While every show has challenges, Englis says that her process is usually the same. “It's in the details that any differences come through,” she notes. “What I do like about the design for this particular piece is the emphasis on elegance and sparkle. That has allowed me to use some wonderful silhouettes and fabrics.” Finding those fabrics, however, was another story altogether. “Most of the local fabric stores now carry the bulk of their fabrics for decorating or crafts, not for making gowns or costumes,” she adds. “So I shopped almost all the ‘glamour’ fabrics in New York City, where you can walk and find store after store that carries silks, embroidered laces, sequined fabrics, etc.”