Sandy • On many levels, Hale Centre Theatre’s new production of “Aida” has a full-circle sensibility.
The Elton John/Tim Rice Broadway musical will be the first show performed on the company’s new high-tech, arena-style Centre Stage. The 900-seat house is one of two new theaters in Sandy’s $80 million Mountain America Performing Arts Centre. The show opens with a gala preview Nov. 16, and the run continues through Jan. 20.
“Aida” was the first chapter in the career story of set designer for Kacey Udy, who had just graduated in graphic design from Utah State University when he was hired as a freelancer to design Hale’s 2006 production.
“Opening this new space is another chapter for me professionally,” says Udy, now the company’s production designer, who has worked with architects and engineers to conceptualize the theater’s next-generation technology.
And in the kind of coincidence that might take place in a musical theater script, the show’s opening gala on Thursday will take place on Udy’s 39th birthday.
A majority of Udy’s technical staff also worked on the 2006 production and appreciate the chance to present the musical in a completely different way. “It’s a great introduction for this new space,” Udy says. “We truly are using every bell and whistle. It’s a very small and intimate show, but there are a handful of moments where it will feel big, and it will feel epic, like Egypt.”
The “Elaborate Lives” of performing in “Aida”
“Aida” is a musical based on the Verdi opera, which unfolds a love triangle: Aida, an enslaved Nubian princess, is attracted to Radames, an Egyptian soldier, who is engaged to the Pharaoh’s daughter, Amneris.
At its heart, the show is an intimate love story, says director Dave Tinney, adding that Udy’s designs are epic and elegant but never technologically gratuitous.
Then there’s this: The show reunites two leads, Kandyce Marie as Aida and Casey Elliott as Radames, who were paired in the Utah theater’s 2006 production of the show and then went on to perform together on the show’s China tour two years later.
“I practically grew up with the show,” says Marie, 33, of North Ogden, who is returning to the stage after having two children. “The show means a lot to me.”
“It’s one of the only shows I could do as much as I have,” says Elliott, 35, of Layton, as he recalled traveling with his wife and young baby while performing in the national tour of “Aida,” a gig he landed just months after the Hale production closed.
This time around they bring the depth of their life experiences to their characters, says Tinney in an email interview.
(For this Hale production, they’re double-cast with Raven Flowers and Zack Wilson, who will take over for Elliott when he performs Christmas concerts with GENTRI, his three-tenor gentlemen’s singing group, including one Dec. 11 at Salt Lake City’s Eccles Theater.)
“Easy as Life” is the number Marie loves to perform in the Tony Award-winning score, while the romantic duet “Elaborate Lives,” staged in a reflecting pool, is a favorite for Elliott, a father of four. (The show, first produced by Walt Disney Theatrical, features a book by Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls and David Henry Hwang.)
As seen in Las Vegas
The design of the circular east face of the theater echoes the curve of Monroe Street, while alluding to the circular stage inside, says Lyle Beecher of Beecher Walker Architects.
The house of the new theater is an oval, intersected by an X, a design cribbed from the stitching on a pillow in a Las Vegas hotel room where engineers and designers happened to be meeting, Udy says.
The theater’s custom-built technology (think of the hydraulics on display in a Cirque du Soleil show) uses more than 130 motors and multiple lifts to move the 24-foot circular stage, including two cantilevered slip stages that can be closed over the main stage. Overhead, there are two “bogie” carriages, which appear like upside-down freight cars, to move sets.
The technology was conceived and manufactured by Tait Towers, an international entertainment technology company known for designing stages for Lady Gaga and other high-profile concert tours.
Six LED screens around the back of the theater will display video imagery that’s incorporated with the onstage scenery for a heightened interactive audience experience.
Udy compares Hale’s technology-assisted arena staging to the full-bodied nature of a sculpture, versus traditional staging that’s more like a painting. “Every single person, in every single seat, is being told a different story, depending on where you’re at,” he says, underscoring the company’s aim to take advantage of its theater-in-the-round staging.
“Many times in the show we’re using aerial moments to complete or extenuate transitions, so that the movement on the stage is a constant flow with no blackouts,” the set designer says. “There will be a fluidity of scenery and actors constantly moving in and out of the space in a variety of ways to make something constantly unique and interesting.”
The song “My Strongest Suit,” for example, is a fashion show that foregrounds the Princess Amneris character as she’s being outfitted by her ladies-in-waiting for a royal banquet.
In Udy and Tinney’s staging, aerialists dressed as paparazzi will descend from the ceiling along with fashion models, nodding to golden-era and contemporary Hollywood. During the song, the slip stages will fit over the main stage as it’s being lowered to create a new floor for a runway. “It’s a complete wipe of a transition,” Udy says.
By the numbers
$80 million • The cost of the Mountain America Performing Arts Centre, which is 122,300 square feet.
$20 million • Cost of Sandy City’s plaza, 14-foot fountain and parking garage.
$10 million • Cost of Mountain America’s naming rights, including cash contributions, $1 million freeway marquee and additional parking floor.
$42 million • Sandy City Council approved bonds to fund the theater, and the city has a 27-year lease-to-own agreement with Hale.
Centre Stage Theatre • Seats 900.
Jewel Box Stage • Seats 467.
Employment • Hale employs 44 full-time staffers,147 part-timers, and pays per-show rates to 300 actors.
Theatergoers • In opening two theaters, HCT hopes to expand its audience from 270,000 to 500,000.
Designing through transitions
After designing more than 90 arena shows at the old West Valley City theater, Udy thinks in transitions. It’s like working backward, he says, considering how to get actors on and off stages before he designs the first set pieces.
But working with industry-leading engineers to conceive new theater technology is a far cry from his farm roots in Snowville.
He recalls himself as an “erector set” kind of kid. He still has a favorite toy from childhood, a Chipmunks’ Curtain Call Theater, with backdrops and trap doors. At 9, he recalls working to automate snowballs in a shoebox diorama instead of writing down his book report about Pippi Longstocking. “I wanted something that did something,” he says, adding that he wired her braids to move back and forth. Of course.
He works on stage designs at his family’s kitchen table in South Jordan, and every show is “a full family project.” His wife, Alissa, now works in the company’s box office. In fact, each of the family’s four boys “timed themselves to be born during dress rehearsals and tech weeks,” Udy says.
On vacations, he’s always thinking about sets and admits to taking more photos of walls, floors and grounds than he does of his family. “The theater really is a life and something you’re always doing,” he says.
His sons are his best critics. Son Dylan, then 6, liked his dad’s design for the flying car in Hale’s 2013 production of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” but thought the poles lifting the car were too visible. “I really thought you could do better,” his son told him.
Now Udy’s got new technology to do better with. The set designer says he is awed by the lifts, scale and speed of the theater’s high-tech machinery. “Standing underneath something that moves at 6 feet a second and weighs 20 tons — that’s awe-inspiring to me,” Udy says. “That’s cool.”