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Set designer explores layers in ‘Tears of Heaven’

At a practice hall nestled at the foot of Mount Nam in Seoul, Tony Award-winning Broadway stage designer David Gallo quietly looks on, envisioning how the Korean actors and his long-time friend Gabriel Barre, the musical director, will fine-tune each act and line for the upcoming blockbuster musical “Tears of Heaven.”

Although there is almost nothing but duct tape to mark the positions of the actors on the floor, Gallo imagines how he will use his video projections and other media to swiftly change scenes from the U.S. to Vietnam and back to the U.S.

The 5 billion won ($4.5 million) musical, produced by local companies Creative Production and Seol & Company as a global project, will premier Feb. 1 at the National Theater of Korea’s Haeoreum Theater in Seoul. The story is about a Korean man’s passionate love for a Vietnamese woman during the Vietnam War.

The blockbuster is the talk of the musical scene, as it has gathered together almost all of the big names in musicals; K-pop idol Kim Ju-su of JYJ and “The Phantom of the Opera” Phantom Brad Little as main characters, “Jekyll and Hyde” composer Frank Wildhorn’s music, “Sweeney Todd” director Gabriel Barre, playwright Phoebe Hwang, Robin Lerner’s lyrics, and Tony-winning stage designer David Gallo.

Gallo said the focus of his design for “Tears of Heaven” would be the use of light, shadows and projections to abstract the time and place.
David Gallo, New York-based stage designer, stands against the wall of concept photos for the musical “Tears of Heaven” at a practice studio in Seoul on Wednesday. (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)
David Gallo, New York-based stage designer, stands against the wall of concept photos for the musical “Tears of Heaven” at a practice studio in Seoul on Wednesday. (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)

“It’s a man explaining to his daughter events from many years in the past. There’s layers of non-reality that I thought was interesting to explore,” Gallo told The Korea Herald. He was invited by director Barre to a reading of the musical in New York and started working on it six months ago.

Gallo briefly visited Seoul last week to check the final progress with Korean lighting and costume designers for several days, and left for New York for another Broadway show.

In designing the musical “Tears of Heaven,” Gallo was already familiar with the Vietnam War as his father told him about Korea’s participation in it.

“My father was in Vietnam in 1967 as a fire pilot. At the Air Force he was stationed in Vietnam, the security was all Korean soldiers,” Gallo said.

He said the design would ensure that the audience will not have to wait for scenery to change.

“The design is fluid. Everything kind of flows along, rapidly, and scenes change right before your eyes.”

The musical begins in the early 1990s in America. Then, it shifts to a night club in Saigon. There are also scenes of military bases, an airport, a big battle, Vietnamese hiding in their tunnels and San Francisco at the end.

Visually, there will be a “huge shift” between Vietnam and San Francisco, as people will feel a sense of separation between the war and the beautiful city, he said. But later, with the realization of the war, the city becomes a less nice place with colors graying out, he said.

There is no scene of Korea, although the show has characters from Korea.

To help boost Gallo’s imagination, the production staff put up photos and snapshots of the Vietnam War and bars and clubs on a wall of the practice hall.

“There’s a tremendous amount of media, a lot of video projection, shadow play. We’re using different ways of projecting things in order to help tell the story.

Just because the musical’s background is the Vietnam War, it does not mean that “Tears of Heaven” is similar to “Miss Saigon,” he noted.

While Miss Saigon is a story of people looking for a future, “Tears of Heaven” is a play exploring the past, Gallo said.

The New York-based designer received the 2006 Tony Award for Best Scenic Design for his work on “The Drowsy Chaperone.” His designs for “Gem of the Ocean” and “Radio Golf” garnered him two additional Tony Award nominations.

While Gallo does shows in big theaters such as European opera houses, he said the Haeoreum Theater is probably the biggest theater he has ever played.

Kim Jun-su, Jeong Sang-yun and Jeon Dong-seok will play Joon, a Korean soldier, and Brad Little will play Colonel Grayson. Actress Yoon Gong-ju and singer Lee Hae-ri of girl group Davichi have been double-cast, each taking on the two roles of Vietnamese woman Linh and her daughter Tianna.

The musical runs from Feb. 1 to March 19 at the Haeoreum Theater of the National Theater of Korea. Tickets range from 30,000 won to 130,000 won. For details, call (02) 501-7888.

By Kim Yoon-mi (yoonmi@heraldcorp.com)
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