Around Town, Part Two: Projection And Sound Design
This is a continuation of Around Town, Part One: Lighting And Setting Design. The Barrington Stage production of On The Town, directed by John Rando, features scenic and projection designs by Beowulf Boritt, sound by Kai Harada, lighting by Jason Lyons, and costumes by Jess Goldstein.
The entire team had to deal with the complications of designing for the enormous Lyric Theatre, which is a far cry from the intimacy of Barrington Stage. Boritt was clear that, despite the size of the Lyric, he had his work cut out for him. “I built show portals to close down to about 40 feet wide, from 50 feet,” he explains, “and then tried to always make the human beings feel important, not dwarfed, so our actors can fully dominate the space.”
This was also Boritt’s first show of this scale made of Lexan. At Barrington, he used translucent colored Plexiglas®, but that does not comply with New York fire codes. Lexan does, but it comes in many fewer colors. Instead, Boritt and PRG used clear Lexan and painted or printed on it to achieve the many-colored design.
The intense dancing in the show also made the deck surface incredibly important. Boritt wanted the feel of the Lexan to continue onto the deck. He ultimately settled on a 4" deck that has deck winches and a sprung floor squeezed inside, skinned with Arboron® industrial phenolic laminate for durability. The skin was painted blue and then sealed with oil-based polyurethane that can be difficult to manage, but it creates a super-reflective surface that cannot be achieved with a latex-based sealer.
Boritt credits much of the success of the scenery to his team. In addition to his associate Alexis Distler, Jason Lajka drafted the show and built the model, discovering and sorting out physical conflicts between scenery pieces along the way. Caite Hevner Kemp was Boritt’s projection associate. She built the complicated video sequences using Autodesk 3ds Max. Christopher Ash was Boritt’s second assistant and helped with both scenery and video, and intern Gabriel Firestone tracked video sequences.
The big challenge with the video was to keep it from being overwhelming. “Conceptually, the whole show is traditional scenic ideas presented with a modern finish, so in my head, the chase scenes and the taxi sequence were roll drops just presented with video instead of canvas on travelers,” says Boritt. “The taxi sequence is the most involved, and I did a very thorough storyboard of all the moments, and then Caite built a model of Manhattan in 3ds Max and filmed the ride through it. It’s timed within an inch of its life, and Caite worked tirelessly perfecting it with the choreography, and the whole sequence—video, sound, and lights—is run on a click track that the conductor, Jim Moore, triggers with each verse in order to keep everything together. It was a lot of logistical prep, but it’s working beautifully so far. I kept the video almost entirely in shades of blue so it wouldn’t overwhelm. The actors are the color in the picture when video is running.”
Boritt also credits the shops as well as technical supervisor Hillary Blanken and the Juniper Street Productions staff with the show’s success. In addition to his design team and PRG, Boritt worked with a number of collaborators and three other shops. Scenic Art Studio did the painting, except for the painted and printed Lexan. The taxicab and many other props were constructed by Prop and Spoon. Mind the Gap made the Navy Yard props and the piano, and Matt Acheson, the puppet designer, built the dinosaur.
One of the hardest parts of working with so many collaborators was keeping the palette clear. Boritt used Pantone numbers to spec colors to “try to coordinate our pop-y color palette across four different shops, and it proved to be difficult. There doesn’t seem to be a good reliable formula to create Pantone matches in paint. In the past, I’ve spec’d Benjamin Moore colors, and that has been more successful.” He depended on props supervisor Susan Barras and production propmaster Chris Pantuso to match colors among the different shops and sources.
Boritt speaks highly of the artistic team, especially lighting designer Lyons. “We have done many, many shows together, so we have a great shorthand,” he says. “We worked closely on the whole show, but especially on the light box portals that Jason used in ten different ways throughout the show.” Lyons adds, “One of the great things about this team is our ability to dream together. Early meetings were exciting and inspiring—a lot of discussion on how to make the dances soar.”
Sound designer Kai Harada had a different journey into the Broadway production of On The Town. He was new to the team with the Broadway transfer, having not designed the Barrington production. Though it meant he was catching up a bit, he says, “My goal, as it is on most shows I design, is to not get in the way of the story or the music. This is a classic old-time musical, with wonderful orchestrations written at a time before sound reinforcement, so in a way, it’s a little easier than doing a modern rock ‘n’ roll musical. The music is written such that the orchestra gets out of the way of the voices, but then comes back in for the dances. Of course, we do mix the orchestra, but it happens very organically.”
Harada embraced the classical form of the musical. Unlike Boritt and Lyons, who integrated new materials and technology, Harada went with equipment he knew well to support the voices and orchestrations. “I find it a slippery slope changing too much of my usual design concepts just for the sake of changing things up,” he says, “so the system is comprised of components that I have used before: Meyer Sound main system, Meyer and d&b fill/surround systems, Sennheiser wireless, and a Stagetec Aurus/Nexus console and routing system, the best digital mixing system in the world.” The Nexus is a digital routing system, and the Aurus is a console that works with the routing system. Although the console is large by current digital console standards, it allowed Harada to work on one side of the console while operator Patrick Pummill mixed the show uninterrupted. Harada says, “This is my fourth show with the system and Patrick’s second, and we couldn’t be happier.“
Sound Associates provided the sound equipment, which is substantial considering the 29 musicians and 28 cast members. Harada uses “all Sennheiser SK5212/EM3732 wireless, with Sennheiser MKE-1 capsules, and we’re bypassing one layer of AD conversion by going into the Stagetec Nexus via AES/EBU. Wireless rigging and backstage tracks are handled by Liz Coleman and John Gibson, who are a fantastic team.”
The orchestra uses Sennheiser, Neumann, Royer, AKG, and Shure microphones, for a total of around 48 inputs. The main speaker system has Meyer M1D line array cabinets as a primary vocal system and Meyer M2D line array cabinets as the primary orchestra system. Smaller Meyer cabinets are used for foldback and fill systems, and d&b Audiotechnik speakers are used for surrounds and delay rings, mainly because some wiring already exists for passive cabinets. Playback and effects are run via Figure 53 QLab 2, a TC Electronic M6000 handles most of the reverb, and a Yamaha SPX-990 handles some effects.
Harada adds that the Lyric was originally two theatres, the Apollo and the Lyric, “and in the late ‘90s, they were mushed together to make one large theatre, originally called the Ford Center. After the mash-up, some acoustical challenges presented themselves. The proscenium arch acted as a large reflector from sources within the orchestra pit.” Luckily for the On The Town team, Broadway’s Spider-Man implemented architectural changes to the theatre when it removed the historical proscenium. When it was restored, changes were allowed that solved some of the problems. “At the urging of the house sound engineer, John Gibson, and from theatre management, some of the plaster was replaced with an acoustical plaster that mitigated a lot of the reflections off the proscenium, and the result is that the theatre now sounds a lot more like a traditional theatre. It is still, however, a 1,900-seat house, and that is a lot of space to fill.”
Harada notes that Boritt and Lyons accommodated his speaker positions. “Beowulf’s proscenium portal narrows the visual image of the stage, which meant that I could hang my center cluster a little lower than in typical productions,” the sound designer says. “Jason’s lighting rig is mostly LED-based and is therefore incredibly silent, which is huge on a mostly acoustic show like this—no nasty lighting fan noise to overcome. Jess Goldstein in costumes and Leah J. Loukas in hair have been great about helping us hide microphones and working with improving the sound quality of actors who wear mics and hats. I couldn’t ask for a better team.”