'Flashdance the Musical': Setting the stage

First conceived as a musicial, the tale of a Pittsburgh dancer's classical aspirations was a hit film in 1983. It now comes to the stage, opening here on New Year's Day before heading to Broadway

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NEW YORK -- A day of chasing down the progress of "Flashdance the Musical" starts a little before 9 a.m. in a dimly lit office between Union Square and the Flatiron District, where projection designer Peter Nigrini has created backdrops for the production that has its world premiere in Pittsburgh Tuesday.

The visit is on a sunny, cool day, the first Thursday in December, with cast and crew staring down Christmas in Utica, N.Y., where a theater awaited last-minute fixes, and then on to Pittsburgh.

'Flashdance the Musical'

Where: PNC Broadway Across America -- Pittsburgh at Heinz Hall, Downtown.

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 6:30 p.m. next Sunday. (For free pre-show talk Thursday, visit trustarts.org.)

Tickets: $20-$78; trustarts.org or 412-392-4900.

The road here had some unusual twists and turns. We know "Flashdance" as a movie that was shot in Pittsburgh, but it was conceived as a stage musical by writer Thomas Hedley before Hollywood -- with co-writer Joe Eszterhas, director Adrian Lyne and music by Giorgio Moroder -- came calling.

The new musical has a book by Mr. Hedley and Robert Cary, and new songs by Mr. Cary (lyrics) and Robbie Roth (music) joining film and radio hits "Flashdance: What a Feeling," "Maniac," "I Love Rock and Roll" and "Manhunt." In the director's seat for the first time is Sergio Trujillo, choreographer of "Memphis," "Jersey Boys" and "The Addams Family."

Projecting Pittsburgh

It is unusual that "Flashdance" returns to its theatrical roots as a tour first, preceding a Broadway run set to begin in August. But there's nothing new about a movie being recast as a theatrical production.

"It used to be that most everything on stage came from novels. The vernacular is always changing, and now it's movies and television, which is a natural progression," Mr. Nigrini says.

Working with scenic designer Klara Zielerova, he has designed projections and screen grids to represent the city in the early 1980s as the steel industry is having its last gasp.

"The thing I noticed, that I really had no recollection of, is the way that visually the film is sort of a love letter to Pittsburgh," he said. "But it's a slightly forlorn love letter. It's not showing the beautiful, polished side of Pittsburgh -- perhaps there wasn't one? The film is honest about that ... but also the way Pittsburgh looks, it looks quite beautiful. The film stock is quite grainy. So it's sort of a gritty, working-man city."

He compares the look to Brian De Palma circa the 1970s. But there are other points of view, including visions of the characters' dreams and the idea of New York City as this seemingly unattainable goal for the leading lady, Alex, a welder by day, exotic dancer by night, who has classical aspirations.

"That dichotomy is something we're interested in looking at. For our production to work, you have to have those flights of fancy from the numbers that are performances in the club because those are the embodiment of their dreams, and you need to connect with these characters about what it means to be from a place. One of the storylines is about the comic going off to New York, and it's really like, I see that distant object, that shiny bauble, but maybe there's something in this unpolished, gritty thing, too."

He fires up his computer screen to show a variety of scenarios that will include projections tied to different scenes, including one spectacular, recognizable view from under a bridge and another inside a working steel mill.

There are references from the film that can't be ignored, he says -- from leg warmers to a certain dance involving water, fans won't be disappointed. And that's as it should be when it comes to "Flashdance."

"It was a film made at a very particular moment in the progression of popular culture and media. It's basically a rather conventional narrative film that every once in a while completely switches tracks, and then there's a music video. And then the music video ends, and we're back to a conventional film. It's one of the things I found fascinating and that Sergio and I talked about from the very beginning, that moment and what was going on with MTV and the intersection of these things all at that time were really wrapped up in this film. ... One of the threads is this idea of music videos and the way they function, what they meant culturally at the time, and in the production, there are the numbers in the club. Those are the much more free moments of expression."

Inside rehearsals

Next stop, Times Square, or more precisely, the 10-story New 42 Studios, with 14 rehearsal spaces and a few named for Broadway legends such as Jerry Zaks and Jerome Robbins.

The elevator opens into a crowded hallway where coats and bags are lined up on a rack. Push through the studio doors, and you enter a world that's very much like what you might see on the TV show "Smash" or the movie "All That Jazz." But there's movement in every corner of the high-ceilinged, wood-floored room, where shaded windows line the right and far sides of the studio and a mirrored wall peeks from beneath black curtains on the left.

Stars Matthew Hydzik of Pittsburgh and Emily Padgett and much of the cast and crew are already in full rehearsal mode, and a visitor can only observe for an allotted time -- the time it takes to run through two numbers, it turns out.

The first number centers on the character of Gloria (Kelly Felthous), who is in a tug-of-war between her Hollywood dreams and the dance club owner keeping her in her place. Ms. Felthous, in a stand-in gown that transitions from Marilyn Monroe curves to a Madonna bullet bra, and the ensemble do a run-through, with a keyboardist providing music.

Director Trujillo faces the action, seated on the walled side of the studio, beside the entry way. He has said a quick "Hi," and now, he comes over and opens something like a football playbook, showing step-by-step renderings and indicating that chairs are standing in for dancing poles.

As Gloria's number is cleared away and a barre and bedroom take the place of a stage platform and chairs, Mr. Hydzik and Ms. Padgett huddle for a moment before their run-through. He plays Alex's well-to-do boyfriend, who is on his way to present a business proposal. She's about to dance for a classical teacher (Jo Ann Cunningham) and becomes anxious alongside trained dancers.

In what seems like a flash, it's time to go.

No dancing around leg warmers

With the sun dropping in the sky, it's back downtown to Chelsea, where Tony-nominated costume designer Paul Tazewell, a former Carnegie Mellon instructor (2003-06), is doing a fitting behind a curtained space.

The studio is bright and airy, with racks of clothing here and there. Dapper Mr. Tazewell pulls up to a glass table wearing a jacket that is fitted beautifully and with a twist -- knitted sleeves from elbow to wrist, a lot like leg warmers. He seems surprised when the resemblance is pointed out. For the look of "Flashdance," he and Mr. Trujillo shied from literal translations as you might find in musicals of the period such as "Rock of Ages," "Footloose" and "Fame."

"When you look at the '80s, there also was 'Dynasty' and some things that were very conservative, too, because of who was in office. It was all reflective of that Reagan period of time," Mr. Tazewell said. "I think what we remember is colored by what we were attracted to about that period. If you render it realistically, it will start to look like a send-up because it can be over the top. We're trying to pull what we like about the period and infuse it with things that maintain a sexy quality because what 'Flashdance' is about essentially is exotic dancers and a dancer who is of that world who wants to go legit."

"Flashdance" also began the trend toward dancewear as streetwear. Mr. Tazewell, who studied dance, was a product of that world -- "I wanted to be the next Ben Vereen," he recalls with a smile.

The costumer's job is to help the audience time travel into the characters' world. In the case of "Flashdance," that includes industrial laborers who could have been almost Anywhere, USA, in the 1980s.

Mr. Tazewell grew up in Akron, Ohio, where he watched the rubber industry dwindling away. "There's a neighborhood quality to Pittsburgh even now, and I could connect to that and draw from my Akron background and synthesize all of that, because it's not the film, it's a Broadway show."

His designs must work in concert with Mr. Nigrini's projections, so he also has keyed into elements that may change even as the production moves into Utica, then Pittsburgh.

Mr. Tazewell spreads sketches on the table to show what Dequina Moore will wear during "Manhunt" -- inspired by Keith Haring and perhaps suitable for an S&M fantasy. It's a dance number with a "Wow" factor, he promises. Another sketch shows the full-color version of the Gloria gown seen at rehearsal, and another is for Tess -- Pittsburgh's Rachelle Rak -- who will have a sexy, tattered look for "I Love Rock and Roll."

"The real ladies who would do this were shopping in Goodwill and vintage shops and putting outfits together, and that became part of a trend as well," Mr. Tazewell said. "If you watch what they are wearing in the film, especially the Alex character, she wears a lot of actual 1940s and '50s clothing that is silhouetted like the '80s."

Among the iconic scenes from the movie on the team's must-have list was Alex removing her bra from under an oversized sweatshirt. And then there's the water scene, with Alex doing a sexy dance to "He's a Dream" and releasing a downpour over her body.

The team behind the musical is keenly aware that for Pittsburghers of a certain age, there's a warm nostalgia for a movie that was set here long before Anne Hathaway, Tom Cruise and Matt Damon were roaming local streets during film shoots.

On one December day in New York City, with the streets decked out in holiday lights and the focus on "Flashdance," a little bit of Pittsburgh seemed to be just around every corner.

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Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960. First Published December 30, 2012 5:00 AM


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