Award-winning lighting designer Kevin Adams brings a little rock-n-roll to Broadway
Published Tuesday, May 18, 2010
by Bryan Matthews

As rock-n-roll musicals continue to arrive on Broadway, lighting designers are enjoying the opportunity to create the same high-powered designs normally seen only on a concert tour. In the electrifying production of American Idiot featuring the music of Green Day, lighting designer Kevin Adams is doing just that with one of the most impactful lighting designs on the Great White Way utilizing the VARI*LITE® VLX™ Wash luminaire from Philips Vari-Lite.

Many remember Adams from his 2009 Tony® Award-winning lighting design from Spring Awakening and similar to the beginnings of that Broadway hit, American Idiot would first be staged elsewhere and then make the move to Broadway when the time was right.

“In making the show for Berkeley Rep, I used the model of our transfer of Spring Awakening from Off-Broadway to Broadway,” said Adams. “This meant essentially taking a plot of conventional lighting fixtures and adding a layer of automated lights onto it. I like using this method instead of starting with a huge detailed plot because I can sketch in ideas in the first venue and then detail them with a more appropriate plot for the transfer.”

But since his lighting design for American Idiot would be following his previous award-winning design, as well as the designs for the pop/rock musical Passing Strange, Next to Normal, and Hair, Adams wanted to make sure there were distinct differences between the two.

“When creating the visual world for American Idiot I knew there were a few things that I wanted to avoid. I did not want to use any light bulbs or fluorescent tubes similar to the kinds that I had used in Spring Awakening, Next To Normal and Passing Strange. About one year ago while working on a production of Hair, I set aside various kinds of aggressive audience blinders and strobe effects for that show knowing that I wanted to build the design of American Idiot around those kinds of muscular stroboscopic effects. And I didn’t want there to be a heavy rig in the house.”

One thing Adams knew for certain was the he wanted to capitalize on the contrast between the ornate surroundings of the St. James Theatre and the powerful rock show that would be playing on its stage.

“I wanted the experience of the audience to be similar to that of attending an opera house. I wanted the front of house hang to be minimal and uniformly hung, so that the focus would be on the simple red curtain that sits in the big gold frame of the St James. And when the curtain slowly rises, the world behind the curtain would be a very muscular rock show with various lighting instruments pointed back at the audience.

As the production made its move to the St. James Theatre, Adams decided to take full advantage of the large proscenium to frame the show on stage. After speaking with his collaborators, they liked the idea and Adams began looking for the perfect lighting fixtures to use, but his search would prove difficult since his main requirement would be a true LED white.

“I had lobbied my collaborators for a light frame around the proscenium that would create a fantastic illumination around the stage so we began by looking at a frame of white LED bars. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find anything in that format that was white, and the RBG versions were extremely expensive as would be the mounting of the frame to the proscenium.”

Frustrated at being unable to find the right light, the idea then turned into a frame of tungsten par lamps, which would still be expensive to mount. But then as the deadline to submit his plot drew near, Adams found the solution.

“Just about the time the plot was due I went to Madison Square Garden to visit the moving light programmer from the West End production of Hair and he showed me the new VLX Wash luminaire. He was using about 40 units on the Eddie Izzard tour and I was immediately wowed by how bright they were, how quick they were and how they contained a beautiful white LED light. I immediately called my associate Aaron Sporer who was drafting the plot and asked how many we could fit vertically on the two proscenium booms and he figured out that we could get 10 on each pipe. By adding these 20 fixtures, I was able to get my perfect white LED light frame around the proscenium plus a superb system of audience blinders.”

With their plot now finalized, Adams turned his attention to bringing the iconic music of Green Day to life. With millions of Green Day fans worldwide, Adams knew that the lighting would play an important part in bringing the show to life and the VLX Wash soon became his ideal light.

“When director Michael Mayer told me the opening number American Idiot could be a prologue to the show and we could immediately roll out the spectacle during the three-minute song, we decided to let it all loose. At the top of the number the 20 VLX fixtures are pointed at the 45 foot walls of the set and in between vocal phrases they quickly strobe in eye-popping combinations such as red/green and blue/red. It is a dazzling disorienting effect for the audience. This light is simply dynamite.”

But Adams did not only need the VLX Wash to create a dazzling opening number, he needed them throughout the show to light the actors and the 45’ walls.

“I have several looks specific to the VLX fixtures throughout the show. In one, I focus all 20 VLX fixtures on the cast at center stage and illuminate them in the brain-melting white light that I was searching for and then in another they follow the actors in a progression mirroring their movement on stage. LED strip lights will give you the RGB colors, but I really needed a true white, and that’s what the VLX gave me along with the beautiful color I needed to light the 45’ tall walls of the actual set and interior walls of the theatre. The VLX gives you both white and color beautifully.”

Having never used an automated LED Wash fixture in the past, Adams is excited about the possibilities that exist for Broadway lighting designers through the VLX Wash luminaire.

“I am excited about the applications of this light. They’re bright, they make saturated light look great, and they react quickly. Their brightness and quickness will surprise many lighting designers. But for me, the most exciting aspect of the VLX, besides the true LED white, is that it can strobe between multiple colors faster than the eye can perceive. I literally structured the opening of American Idiot around them and I can’t imagine this design without them.”

Send this page to a friend