‘Can'-do guy sets the stage
INSIDE a cavernous shed used in the winter to house Rose Parade floats, Roy Christopher takes a long look at a piece of painted canvas stretched over a tall slab of wood, trying to decide if the postimpressionist era colors are just right. The set designer for the upcoming revival and revisal of the Cole Porter-Abe Burrows musical “Can-Can” at the Pasadena Playhouse, Christopher is judging by the indoor light of late morning if the blues and grays and yellows used to represent a column of drapery at a late-19th century French nightclub are strong enough -- without being too strong.
The scenery for “Can-Can,” several thousand square feet of it, is “nearly all painting,” as Christopher explains, and he is only now seeing it fully realized after working with models, drawings and computer images since November. Christopher and a team of assistants are here in the shed because the backstage area where sets are usually built at the Playhouse is not big enough to accommodate all that they’re constructing for “Can-Can.”
The show opens Friday. Crunch time has arrived. “I think we need more detail, more texture, more color,” he says, his fingers pointing toward a spot on the canvas as he converses with the man doing the painting, head scenic artist Chris Winslow.
“More midtones,” Winslow says.
“But not too bold and cartoony,” says Christopher, a tall man with a sunny, authoritative voice who has spent most of his career in television and designed sets for the Academy Awards 17 times plus the sitcoms “Frasier” and “Murphy Brown,” among others.
In the universe of set design choices that stretches between photographic realism and abstract suggestion, Christopher’s designs for “Can-Can” are somewhere in the middle, inspired by the lush demimonde tableaux of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Edgar Degas but leaving something to be filled in by the audience’s imagination.
“I want it to look like half-realized Lautrec,” Christopher says.
The proscenium of the historic playhouse is being modified and incorporated into the design. The first row of seats has been removed and two side stages added, while the orchestra will be relocated from the pit to a platform upstage. “I tried to take the house and burst it into the audience so that you feel you’re in this nightclub,” the designer says. But he also has had to create panoramas of “flying” scenery that will evoke a courtroom, a jail, an artist’s atelier and a rooftop with a view of Paris. A bridge will rise from the orchestra pit as if it were the Seine.
“The fun of this show is that there’s a lot of theatrical magic,” Christopher says. “We hope.”
The budget for the sets is about $207,000, or more than four times the average set cost at the Playhouse for a comparable production. The overall cost of “Can-Can” is about $913,000.
“There’s a lot of show here,” says David Lee, the “Can-Can” director, by way of explaining why the 1953 musical is not revived more often. It’s a tall order. The Cole Porter score includes “I Love Paris” and two more songs that became standards in the ‘50s, “It’s All Right With Me” and “C’est Magnifique.” But the original Broadway production, about the proprietress of a scandalous dance hall and a judge investigating her, had nearly 40 characters and a faulty through-line, which Lee and collaborating writer Joel Fields have tried to repair without poaching songs from the rest of Porter’s glorious catalog (as was done in a London revival in 1988). In Pasadena the cast will number 22.
It was Lee, a creator and executive producer of “Frasier,” who brought Christopher with him from the “Frasier” set at Paramount to design a production of Moss Hart’s “Light Up the Sky” for the Playhouse in 1999. “I went to Roy,” Lee recalls, “and said, ‘You have any interest in moonlighting in the theater?’ ”
“ ‘Frasier’ was starting to wind down, and I hadn’t done theater in many years,” says Christopher. “I jumped at the chance, and I try to make myself available now because I like it very much.”
“Can-Can,” its title taken from the name given to a risque high-kicking dance, is the fourth show Christopher and Lee have done together at the Playhouse. Christopher has done two others.
“David and I think of ourselves as theater people,” Christopher says. “No matter what I do, it’s theater for television: An audience comes in and it’s live. I never cared for designing movies or single-camera shows. I mean, I love movies, but in my own work I’ve always liked the pace of theater.”
The challenge of sitcoms is not inconsiderable, he notes. “You have a very small space, and you have to make room for an audience. You have to be clever.” Lee says, “Roy has an amazing ability to take an abstract idea or character trait and turn it into something concrete before your eyes.”
The director recalls when “Frasier” was in the planning stages and he had no idea what the title character’s Seattle condo should look like except that it should contain a Coco Chanel couch. Christopher took the couch and went from there to fashion what became the enviable bachelor pad in the sky. “He helped define who Frasier was and invented taste for him,” Lee says.
A native of Fresno, Christopher got into set design after coming to Los Angeles in 1963, hoping to be an actor and director. But he had also studied art and painted the sets for the undergraduate productions at Cal State Fresno, which his wife, Dorothy, reminded him of when his acting career failed to take off. “I could always draw,” Christopher says.
NBC hired him to paint sets for $200 a week, good money at the time. And he found he liked it. Eventually he was designing sets for the variety shows hosted by Dean Martin and Jack Benny. “I understood how the camera related to scenery,” he says.
In his “Can-Can” research, Christopher says, he did not watch the ill-regarded 1960 movie that starred Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine, but he did go back and look at the 1952 Jose Ferrer-Zsa Zsa Gabor film, “Moulin Rouge,” set in the same period. “And the French version, Jean Renoir’s ‘Moulin Rouge,’ influenced me.”
He studied posters by Toulouse-Lautrec and others. Then he started, as he always does, making small pencil drawings, “millions of them,” he says. “Nothing on my computer at that point.” Then he began drawing the sets in miniature and coloring them. “We make color Xeroxes of those, then digitally reproduce them, and that’s what we put in the model.”
The drawings were later enlarged to theatrical size when projected onto canvas and painted.
In the shed, Christopher walks over to a large canvas teeming with club-hopping Parisians circa 1893. “Each of these caricatures tells a little story,” he says, pointing to the plump faces and furtive expressions. “One represents Toulouse-Lautrec himself, who will be positioned in such a way as to be gazing down on all that is happening onstage, in a very real sense as a result of his inspiration.”
Thousands of man-hours will have gone into the creation of the sets for “Can-Can” by the time the show opens for previews. But Christopher is not sure he wants theatergoers to know that. “My job is not to have people say, ‘Look at all the work we’ve done.’ It’s for you as an audience to enter this world and get caught up in the story and the characters.”
Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena
When: Opens July 6. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Call for exceptions.
Ends: Aug. 5
Price: $47 to $71
Contact: (626) 356-PLAY