Anna Louizos has been quite the busy designer of late. After the enormous popularity of her skewed Sesame Street set for Avenue Q, this season has seen her work on three very different productions — Steel Magnolias on Broadway, Altar Boyz off-Broadway, and The Baker's Wife at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ. One set is a southern-fried beauty shop, the other is a neo-industrial playground, and the last one is a rural Provence village that is more striking than most French postcards.
“Provence itself is like a painting,” Louizos says of her sets for Stephen Schwartz's The Baker's Wife. “These villages have a wonderful sense of being around for centuries and the buildings' architecture doesn't looked planned; it has a rambling, centuries-old quality to it and I wanted to convey that on stage. There are lots of imperfections in the architecture and that's part of its beauty.” One aspect most rural French villages don't have is a turntable (well, except for the various locales in Les Miserables), but Louizos needed a way to reveal the different scenes without going to blackout as per director, Gordon Greenberg, who wanted The Baker's Wife to flow like a movie. Also, the script required rapid scene changes from interiors to exteriors and back, and the turntable easily accommodated the script, the director, and Louizos' own aesthetics. The set also has a sense of elevation to it as well; at three different points, actors enter and exit via stairs, one of which is a crooked alley way in the middle of the turntable. Since so many of these rural villages are nestled on hillsides, having the set level on the deck would not give the set the same joie de vivre.
A very different joy for life exists in Truvy's Beauty Spot, the setting of Steel Magnolias by Robert Harling and directed by Jason Moore. However, before Louizos put pen to paper, Harling took her, Alexander, and the producers to his hometown of Natchitoches, LA, to the actual neighborhood where the playwright's mother got her hair done. “I really got a sense of life in these small-town salons where the décor is eclectic, to say the least, and there are snippets of design ideas from all these different magazines,” Louizos says. “The set has to be an expression of Truvy, and Jason wanted the set to feel sunny and lived in with a haphazard, decorative quality.” She and Moore also felt that it was important to present the shop as it related to the neighborhood. After all it was Truvy's former carport that her husband converted for her. “We could've just done an interior but it wouldn't have felt the same,” she says. “It would've isolated the beauty parlor in a way that would not reflect how these people lived. It was part of a neighborhood.” Moore also wanted a sliding glass door in the set for the beauty shop's patrons' entrances, so the audience could see them coming; Louizos happily obliged.
The only hair product in Altar Boyz is mousse and gel — and plenty of it. For this setting, Louizos kept the bells and whistles to a minimum to emphasize the boys' humble background as five guys from Ohio on the road to spread the gospel. “We didn't want to make it too slick because we just wanted to show how these guys travel light and make due with whatever they have wherever they end up performing,” she says, adding that in the script they talk about singing at bingo halls and church rallies. “We wanted to create a space that's not finished, and since we were booked into Dodger Stages, we made it look like it was the one area that was still under construction.” To that end, Louizos created a false proscenium with walls resembling broken cinder blocks. Overhead, in front of the walls, is silver ductwork that, along with the two lighting towers LD Natasha Katz put on either side of the stage, created a proscenium that framed the stage nicely. Across the rear of the set, behind the onstage band, is a catwalk backed by three large lightboxes that resemble industrial intake ducts. A vinyl sign held up with rope that reads “Altar Boyz” completes the look Louizos was going for: “An unfinished basement.”
The Baker's Wife played at Paper Mill Playhouse through May 15. Steel Magnolias is currently on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre. Altar Boyz plays off Broadway at Dodger Stages.