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Setting the Stage

Bob Crowley, designer of sets extraordinaire, hops from San Diego's Old Globe to Londontheaters on a reputation built on his distinctive vision and compulsion to succeed.


SAN DIEGO — Bob Crowley defies the conventional wisdom that you can't be in several places at once. The acclaimed Irish-born set designer is opening three successive shows in as many weeks--one in Southern California and two in London--and thriving amid the chaos.

Taking a break late last week during technical rehearsals for the Burt Bacharach-Hal David musical "What the World Needs Now . . . A Musical Fable," which opens at the Old Globe on Thursday, Crowley explained that he had just completed work on the Broadway-bound London premiere of David Hare's "The Judas Kiss," starring Liam Neeson. On Sunday, he took off for London to start technical rehearsals for a much-anticipated staging of "The Iceman Cometh," starring Kevin Spacey in his London theatrical debut.

It's the kind of schedule that would give a less compulsive artist pause. "It's just nuts at the moment," says the soft-spoken designer, 45, clad in fashionable gray and black, offset by chic tortoise-shell glasses and short-cropped red hair.

"It's actually rather nice to get on a plane and be able to sleep without the fax bothering me. I do tend to kind of do too much."

Yet overdoing it seems to work well for Crowley. In an era when designers have come to play powerful roles in the success of a play or musical, he is widely recognized as a stand-out talent. His designs are not only consistently singled out for praise but also have been known to receive glowing reviews even when the show has been roundly panned--as happened to the Paul Simon Broadway musical "Capeman," which closed last weekend after 59 previews and 68 regular performances.

First noticed in the U.S. for his 1987 Broadway debut with "Les Liaisons Dangereuse," Crowley had a breakthrough for U.S. audiences with his design for Nicholas Hytner's 1992 staging of "Carousel." Seen in New York in 1994 and at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles in 1996, the sumptuous revival boasted a lush cobalt blue landscape, complete with starry vistas and a piquant Maine village.

"What the World Needs Now . . .," conceived by Gillian Lynne and Kenny Solms and directed and choreographed by Lynne, is slated to open in New York at the Roundabout Theatre in early June, bringing the noted designer's work to Broadway yet again.


Crowley's set for "What the World Needs Now . . ." is a vision of Gotham set askew--skyscrapers, a bridge, a narrow highway packed with cars, the Statue of Liberty, the golden Prometheus of Rockefeller Center. With these icons at various perilous angles above a map-like city grid stage floor, the set evokes the vertigo and awe that characterize a mere mortal's-eye view of Manhattan.

"When I'm in a city like New York, what I'm constantly aware of is things reflecting off each other," Crowley says. "You're always seeing things in car windows or [from] a taxi looking up. One is never looking at it as you do in those panoramic shots, looking at it from Brooklyn across the water. That's rare. Once you're inside it, you're its creature."

Crowley designed "What the World Needs Now . . ." while he was in New York working on "Capeman." On that show, too, Crowley offered unexpected points of view of New York.

Taken together, the two shows are the London-based artist's homage to the Manhattan of his childhood and adolescent imagination--although he didn't actually visit New York until he was in his 30s.

"My earliest memory of New York is a photograph of my parents sitting in front of the statue of Prometheus at Rockefeller Center," he says. "So he's there, floating above the whole proceeding, kind of like an angel."

Other memories also played a part in drawing Crowley to the project. "I've always loved the sound of Burt Bacharach, and his music has always taken me to New York in my head," he says. "What's fascinating now, of course, is that he's fashionable again."

The project is essentially a revue of Bacharach-David hits, connected by a bare-bones book: "It's a thread running through it: fairly minimal, like a string for the pearls to be attached," Crowley says.

The piece was intended first for production in London, about six years ago, but never made it. The idea was revived last summer, thanks to a workshop at the Roundabout, but Crowley was not involved with it at the time.

When Lynne got the green light and contacted Crowley, the two took a field trip. "When I heard that this show was going to get done, Burt Bacharach was then in London giving a concert, so we all headed off to the Royal Albert Hall," he recalls.

"He packed the Royal Albert Hall, and it was the trendiest thing you've ever been to in your life," Crowley continues. "It was full of ladies with gray cardigans on, but you also had Bjork sitting in front of you and Jarvis Cocker of Pulp and Elvis Costello. This whole new generation were all sitting there watching this gray-haired man in a dinner jacket play all these songs."


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