Designer Allen Moyer Strikes Oil on DTC's Giant Set

Creating the wide open spaces and big skies of West Texas for a huge piece of musical theater has presented an interesting set of problems for designer Allen Moyer. Now finishing up the final details on the scenery for Dallas Theater Center's production of the musical version of Edna Ferber's novel Giant, opening January 18 in previews, Moyer, who designed Broadway's Tony-winning Grey Gardens, gave us a preview of how the show will look.

Expect lots of use of forced perspective, ways of fooling the eye into thinking things are larger than they are. Like, small corrugated cardboard shacks placed upstage to look like they're way off in the distance. A huge water tower downstage for some scenes, replaced with a smaller replica upstage in others.

Giant is an enormous production, with a budget over $1 million, an ensemble of 23 Equity actors cast out of New York and an orchestra playing in full view of the audience on a trestle over the stage. There's so much heavy scenery to shift around at the Wyly Theatre during the two-act show, stagehands work every minute of intermission to get things ready for the second act. (Giant will run just under three hours.)

More pictures of Giant in progress and a chat with Mr. Moyer after the jump.

With music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa (The Wild Party), and book by Sybille Pearson, Giant, directed by Michael Greif, is a co-production between DTC and New York's Public Theater. It's the biggest show yet in Wyly's Potter Performance Hall, which has a deep stage but limited wing space. One of the largest pieces of Moyer's set, the staircase that indicates the oil-rich Benedicts' mansion, will fly up into the rafters when it's not being used.

The 1956 film of Giant, starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean, was shot around Marfa, Texas, where the landscape provided some iconic images through the cinematography of William C. Mellor. How can musical theater achieve that visual scope? That's where we started in our conversation with Allen Moyer.

Which scene in Giant, the musical, will give have the biggest visual pop? Allen Moyer: Beginnings and endings are things I like. Those are the most important points in a show for the audience. The beginning of this show is spectacular. There's a man standing on that bridge over the stage, playing the guitar alone and singing, with the image of the sky behind him. At the very end, that image is bookended with the same thing, but it's a new generation singing. And the stage is filled with oil derricks.

Did you ignore the movie while you were designing or did you try to incorporate some imagery from it that we might recognize? The writers of this show would tell you that they have spent more time with the novel than the movie. The movie took a lot of liberties with the story. In the book, Ferber really based the Reata ranch on the King Ranch (in South Texas). The movie and the novel are apples and oranges. Bick Benedict's house in the movie looks like the scary mansion in Psycho. In the book it's described as more of a hacienda. Onstage, I chose the staircase and a few pieces of furniture to stand in for Reata. We shorthand a lot of things for this show. But I did watch the movie again the other day.

Does it bother you if reviews don't mention your scenery? Not at all. I like a review that talks about the success of the event. I don't believe in flashy or showy scenery. When I read a review and it's all about the tricks of the set design, I think there's a problem. I'm not a big fan of tricks in scenery and things flipping around. I come at the play as a piece of dramatic literature. I love working with writers and staying open about things. I don't want to be so in love with something in my ideas for the design that I don't let go of it.

Musicals seem to keep getting bigger, maybe as a way to keep surprising and attracting audiences to live theater. Does that make your job harder as a designer? The more you do this, it's amazing how fast things can come to you. You hit a certain stride. And like with Giant, you find yourself working with a whole cast and crew of people who are also hitting their stride as professionals. The busier I am, the more work I seem to be able to do quickly.

Still, you have to be a little nervous. You're a week from opening and the scenery for Giant still looks pretty raw. Some of the transitions will be tricky. And some things will be slightly miraculous. But it'll get there.

Giant opens in previews January 18 and plays through February 19 at the Wyly Theatre. For tickets, 214-880-0202 or http://tickets.attpac.org.

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