On The Town With Clifton Taylor

Anyone interested in classics of musical theatre knows that Encores at City Center in Manhattan is the place to hear many a bygone hit from Tin Pan Alley. This year’s season—Encore’s 16th—opened November 19-23 with a semi-staged concert version (with the performers on book) of On The Town, Leonard Bernstein’s 1944 musical about three sailors on 24-hour shore leave in the Big Apple. On The Town was also part of a season-long Bernstein celebration in his memory on the occasion of his 90th birthday. Directed by John Rando, the design team included scenic consultant John Lee Beatty, costume consultant Martin Pakledinaz, LD Clifton Taylor, and sound designer Tom Morse.

The stage was divided into two levels, with the orchestra on the lower level, and an acting area in front of the musicians. The upper deck was used primarily for dance numbers—several of which recreated the original choreography by Jerome Robbins (On The Town was inspired by Robbin’s ballet, Fancy Free). The stage is framed for all Encores performances by two gold, picture-frame style portals, lit with round, incandescent S lamps used for lively chases.

For the upper deck and its cyc, Taylor wanted “it to feel like a real dance stage,” so he used traditional dance side light, with four colors of backlight—R83, R39, R20, and Lee202—in Source Four PAR strips, which Taylor “loves, I wish everyone around the world had them,” and sidelight with 16-color scrolls and specials in R68, R37, and Lee 161. Downstage had a more musical theatre set-up with box booms (“You’d be dead without them,” Taylor notes), as front light is not practical as it gets in the eyes of the musicians. The rig combines ETC Source Fours with scrollers, along with automated fixtures: five VL 1000s, eight VL5Bs, and seven Mac700 spots as specials on the dance deck as subway effects in certain scenes. Taylor also used two Lycian M2 followspots on a 24-inch truss installed for the show in the first electrics position. Three additional FOH followspots are in-house 3kW Xenons.

“The gobo work helped tell the story,” says Taylor, who basically had to light a set without major scenery. “There are so many scenes in the show, so we decided to use window patterns,” he says, with different windows to indicate a luxury apartment, a dive of an apartment, a museum, and Carnegie Hall. There were also various texts projected via a red LED sign borrowed from the Roundabout Theatre, indicating various locations and times of day as the 24 hours fly by. “We wanted an incandescent sign but this is all we could find,” notes Taylor. There is also humor in the book scenes, and actress Andrea Martin (seen in photo) was so funny at times that the orchestra was breaking up with laughter behind her.

Tech took place all in one day, the Monday before a Wednesday opening night, during which Taylor wrote the cues. Tuesday afternoon’s orchestra rehearsal with the performers is the first time he saw the costumes on stage. An invited dress on Tuesday night is the last chance to tweak. “During the load-in, you focus as the scenery comes in, whenever you get can,” Taylor notes. “It’s a little like summer stock in New York City, or a throwback to the time they actually did these musicals. Broadway is so different now but Encores is how it was. And in a way it’s exhilarating. Your choices have to be strong. It forces the designers to make choices that land hard.”

Taylor’s lighting team included Paul Sonnleitner, who programmed the automated fixtures and portal chases on a grandMA, with Greg Chabet programming the conventionals on the in-house Obsession. Greg Guarnaccia served as assistant LD. The majority of the rental gear came from PRG, with the grandMA console (and related electronics) coming from 4Wall Entertainment Lighting. “In the end, it was a fun, bright, colorful, concert production,” says Taylor. And what a fabulous score!

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