David Gallo has won acclaim for his scenic designs all over the world. An incomplete list of places where his prodigious talents can be found includes theater, live music, television, industrial shows and even the circus.
Gallo has many facets to his work, but at heart he’s one thing – a storyteller. And it’s obvious when he speaks about his work that telling a story is what keeps his artistic motor purring along.
“A designer helps to create an experience that tells a story,” says Gallo, who arrived in Nashville last week as The Nutty Professor prepares to begin its preview performances Tuesday in the Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Polk Theater. “There are people who think scenic design is essentially an extension of interior decoration. That couldn’t be further from the truth.”
The 46-year-old copped the Tony Award in 2006 for his ingenious designs for The Drowsy Chaperone (see photos above and below this paragraph). That prize is one of many he’s won since he began his professional career in the 1980s, but with each new project there are the challenges that come with starting fresh.
“I think one of the things that does define me is that I don’t have an identifiable style,” says the man who has conjured scenic canvases for everything from the plays of August Wilson and the utilitarian delights of The Blue Man Group to TV’s Imus in the Morning, the 135th Ringling Bros., Barnum and Bailey Circus and the jam band Phish. “…Every show, every artist, every musician, every band I work with – it’s a new beginning, it’s starting from scratch and finding out what you can do in order to tell the story. So it’s not a continuous repetition of ideas.”
Gallo first heard there might be a stage musical based on Jerry Lewis’ celebrated 1963 film several years ago. He expressed interest then, and when The Nutty Professor’s world premiere plans were being finalized “I went and met with Jerry and had some really great conversations and it all sort of rolled forward from there,” he says.
“The approach has been to make it accessible and fun from the very beginning,” the designer explains. “…It has a nice playful sense of color and perspective that I think give it a fun musical comedy edge to it. I would use the term whimsical…and endearing hopefully.
“My function is to get in the minds of the artists – in this case Marvin Hamlisch, Rupert Holmes, JoAnn Hunter and Jerry Lewis – that are creating the musical and help them tell their story in a visual way. It was clear to me early on in this process that I had to find something that kept up with the wit and the whimsy of the score and the story. That’s where the look (for the show) came from.”
Did he watch the film before preparing his renderings? “I’ve done a number of productions that were based on popular films. In many cases I never watched the movie because I thought it would be unnecessary or distracting (for example, he watched the 1967 film Thoroughly Modern Millie years after designing the sets for its 2002 Broadway incarnation) but in this case the actual film as source material is very, very important to the approach we have to the production.”
Purple and green dominate the colorful designs for The Nutty Professor; those are the school colors for Korwin University where Dr. Julius Kelp (Michael Andrew) teaches, and there’s ‘The Purple Pit’ nightclub where Buddy Love (also played by Andrew) lays down his vibe.
Another notable feature are portraits of august professors that seem to look down disapprovingly on the socially hapless Kelp. “The idea is that Kelp is not connecting with the students, that he’s not measuring up as a teacher,” Gallo notes. “And so what I wanted as we see this person who has a brilliant mind but just can’t connect with fellow human beings is that he’s being continuously frowned on by the great and illustrious faculty of the college going back hundreds of years.”
The designs were completed “in a couple of weeks” because of time constraints before being sent to New York workshops for construction, according to Gallo. They were then shipped to Nashville for load-in at TPAC (see photo below this paragraph). And local firms were among those preparing the items needed to transform the Polk stage – for instance, drops for The Nutty Professor were painted by Nashville’s Drops-Everything Scenic. “We wanted to do as much here as humanly possible,” the designer adds.
What was it like to see the concrete results of his designs? “It really was a wonderful experience because it’s very unusual that I don’t have knowledge of the theater – very rarely do I design a show without seeing the space but in this case that wasn’t possible,” Gallo notes. “It was quite nice to actually see it in the (Polk). It’s an unusual theater but I think it has a lot of really great virtues and we were able to exploit it in interesting ways.
“I had to make some tricky choices early on. This theater is actually on the large side, and at first I wasn’t sure what to do with it, but there were a couple of wonderful things done by the architect that allowed me to keep the show really downstage and in the audience so that it was really very intimate. So that was nice, and it was really great to see the bold choices I made had worked out when I saw the space itself.”
Nashville Production Producer Mac Pirkle certainly knows that space well – he oversaw many shows there during his years helming Tennessee Repertory Theatre. And he’s a big fan of what Gallo has done, from the design colors to the use of Polk’s distinctive dimensions.
“I think his set is fabulous,” Pirkle says. “He has done two things that are really wonderful – he’s really designed for the Polk Theater…really bringing the show down into the audience’s lap, and I also love how’s he’s taken the period and embraced it.”
Pirkle notes within Gallo’s design the pleasant echoes of the wing-and-drop sets – where a play’s scenery was brought in from the sides of the stage or flown in from above – that were popular at the time of The Nutty Professor‘s early 1960s timeframe. “It’s ultimately a lot different than that, but I think it takes some of its inspiration from that, which is also wonderful,” he says.
And as Pirkle also points out, Gallo has provided a “great scenic canvas” that is complemented with the lighting design of David Weiner (among many awards he was a 2012 Lucille Lortel Award winner for the Off-Broadway production of Through a Glass Darkly) and the costumes of Ann Hould-Ward (who has a Tony for her work on 1994’s Beauty and the Beast among several prizes). “The whole effect is just incredible,” he notes after seeing those elements come together in recent rehearsals.
Gallo works very hard, but happily he’s going to take some time to enjoy Nashville. His only previous design here was for a Coors industrial at Opryland Hotel more than a decade ago, but “being in Nashville is very, very big to me. It’s a city I’ve really, really enjoyed coming to in the past,” he says. “One of the reasons I’m excited to be here is that I have such a love of country music, and of course this is an incredible Mecca for that.” He won’t be able to see a Grand Ole Opry show while he’s in the Music City, but he does plan to tour the historic Ryman Auditorium.
Soon it will be time to cast his talented eye on other projects following his enjoyable experience with The Nutty Professor. “I’ve been doing musical theater for a long time, but one of the things I’ve really been getting into is taking pure music and helping create a visual storytelling experience from that,” says Gallo. “I really enjoy getting to know artists, and then trying to channel what they want to portray through my designs.”
Previews of The Nutty Professor begin Tuesday (July 24) in TPAC’s Polk Theater. Opening night of this world premiere show is July 31; the pre-Broadway run concludes Aug. 19. Go to www.nuttyprofessormusical.com for more information and tickets.
*Photos of the load-in set and lab door on set by Rick Malkin for ArtsNash; all other photos and renderings courtesy David Gallo Design, copyright 2012, used with permission.