You have two and a half weeks to wrangle 22 musicians and 30 performers, create their costumes and construct a set that evokes the Scottish Highlands, circa 1717. Who you ‘gonna call?
The non-for-profit outfit The Production Company, that’s who.
Philanthropist Jeanne Pratt founded the Melbourne-based company in 1999. It’s dedicated to providing work for A list performers in top-shelf musical productions, usually at the 2000 seat State Theatre at the Arts Centre in Melbourne.
The company’s specialty is to stage much-loved musicals as ‘concert’ versions in a fraction of the time and cost a big commercial extravaganza, while still going all-out on dazzling costumes and innovative staging so the audience feels they are watching big budget and big price show.
If there’s a ‘trick’ to this approach, it’s in the casting. TPC shows employ the cream of Australian musical theatre talent and several nominations and Helpmann Awards have been earned competing in categories against the big-budget international producers.
Director Jason Langley is an old hand at wrangling talented casts and crews within a very brief time frame for TPC shows. Last year he directed its production of Dusty, and now he is helming its 61st production, Brigadoon, beginning October 28 in Melbourne.
“You just work with the time you’re given. It’s amazing what resources can be pulled out,” he says of his creative team, though he adds they have spent months of preparation and planning before the 12 days of rehearsal time begin.
Brigadoon is the 1947 Broadway musical by the team of Lerner and Loewe who also created Gigi, My Fair Lady and Camelot.
Its story is about two young men from New York on holiday in ‘present day’ Scotland who stumble onto a magical town where it is still the 1700s. One of the men, Tommy, falls in love with local lass Fiona, which is awkward given he has a fiancée back in New York. The musical is probably better known for its big budget 1954 film version directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse.
But this TPC production, starring Rohan Browne as Tommy, Genevieve Kingsford as Fiona and stage legend Nancye Hayes as the village matriarch, is faithful to the original musical rather than the colour-saturated film version. “Yes I am reimagining it, but that’s what directors do,” Langley says.
He wanted to emphasise the isolation and wildness of the Scottish back hills when its inhabitants were closely bound together in a small community. So in contemporary terms, think more of television’s Outlander and Game of Thrones than a ruddy-cheeked Gene Kelly and a coiffed and cinched waisted Cyd Charisse from the movie.
These townspeople are rough, rustic peasants. They wear animal pelts for clothes and animal bones as buttons and fasteners, and yes, there are kilts – though these are the 1700s version known as ‘great plaid’ – rough tartan cloth thrown around the waist and roughly belted.
Langley made it clear to TPC regulars, costume designer Isaac Lummis and set designer Christina Smith, that he didn’t want a “twee village” look but a “rich and real” earthy feel for the setting.
Both Lummis and Smith know the TPC drill; time and budgets are tight but thorough preparation and quick thinking keeps the wheels turning.
Smith has only only one day and a week of technical rehearsal to install her set on the stage of the State Theatre. Its stage has to accommodate the orchestra, the performers and provide enough space for the large scale choreographic numbers (there are big wedding and funeral scenes).
Without giving too much away, she has done this by creating a set that suspends from the ceiling like an installation.
“We’ve created this canopy which is a big idea on a big scale; it’s quite sculptural,” she says.
She works with lighting designer Matt Scott whose lights, colour choices and visual projections create the world of Scottish isolation and remoteness. They can also switch back to the present day, which includes a scene at a New York nightclub in 2017.
Costumes play an enormous role in TPC productions because its shows are invariably centred on the performers, rather than technical wizardry.
The task of creating bespoke and multiple costumes for Brigadoon’s 30 performers was Isaac Lummis’ who had three months preparation to create the outfits before the cast arrived for their two and half week rehearsal period.
“Hopefully they still fit them,” he says. The designer employs a team of cutters and stitchers who have put together more than 80 costumes for the show.
Much of Lummis’ attention goes to the two leads, Browne (Tommy) and Kingsford (Fiona), although Tommy is mostly dressed like a modern day hiker dressed in Kathmandu.
“Genevieve as Fiona is brighter and bolder than the rest of the ensemble, and of course she has that brilliant red hair that makes her stand out,’’ he says.
And yes, there is tartan in this town of Brigadoon and, “quite a lot of it”, says Lummis. No expense was spared on getting that important detail right.
Brigadoon is at the State Theatre from October 28 to November 5