Vamping it up


Backstage at Broadway's 'Dance of the Vampires,' the fake blood is the life

Sunday, November 03, 2002

Star-Ledger Staff

NEW YORK -- Saying hello, Angelina Avallone apologizes for the gore that stains her hands and forearms red.

"We've been mixing blood," explains Avallone with a spicy Balkan accent. "We make our own here."

She nods, smiling, toward a sink piled with dripping basins. "It's edible, you know."

Not only does Avallone supply dozens of bloodsuckers in the backstage labyrinths of the Minskoff Theatre with their beverage of choice, she helped create the infernal creatures and maintains them, too, as the makeup designer for "Dance of the Vampires."

Currently in previews and opening later this month, the lavish new Broadway musical stars Michael Crawford as a cool Transylvanian aristocrat who thirsts for love. With a Gothic rock score by Jim Steinman of "Bat Out of Hell" fame, the show spoofs the Dracula tradition as much as it wallows in the genre's swooning seductiveness.

Based on "The Fearless Vampire Killers," the 1967 Roman Polanski film, the musical was a hit in Vienna five years ago. Its latest incarnation is freshly adapted by comic playwright David Ives ("All in the Timing") and staged by John Rando ("Urinetown") with a 36-member cast in a $12 million production.

Avallone, 36, a Bulgarian-bred MFA graduate of the Yale School of Drama, has been working on the show since last March in conjunction with costume designer Ann Hould-Ward and the other creators of the musical's weirdly glamorous looks.

"This particular project is a makeup designer's dream come true," says Avallone, whose previous assignments include "Thoroughly Modern Millie," "Kiss Me, Kate" and "The Scarlet Pimpernel."

Yet the show has its nightmarish aspects, too. Keeping the large cast looking as creepy as it should for eight performances a week demands a routine that would spook the hardiest backstage professional.

While the nine leading actors undergo certain transformations as the show proceeds, its 27 ensemble members each portray several variations on the quick and the undead. Typically, one of them, Jenny-Lynn Suckling, changes her costumes and alters her makeup to match half a dozen times.

Suckling's most spectacular appearance is in the "Eternity" number when she arises from a tomb as a worm-riddled Marie Antoinette lookalike. But she also plays a green vampire, a Balkans peasant, a skeletal glow-in-the-dark creature and a glittery, modern-day club kid phantasm.

Avallone estimates that she has designed over 150 individual makeup looks for the cast. Because many costumes are scanty or in graveyard tatters, actors wear full body paint that harmonizes with the show's general blue-gray-purple-white color palette. "So everyone on stage looks part of that world," explains Avallone, who developed custom colors with Ben Nye Cosmetics, a West Coast makeup house.

The makeup is ordered in bulk in gallon jugs and mixed several times a week by Avallone and her assistants, Vanessa Anderson and Paula Kelly, in a makeshift area in a stairwell adjacent to the makeup room.

The actors apply the makeup themselves in their dressing rooms in patterns that Avallone terms "striations" -- vertical streaks that suggest the body's muscles. After that, the actors put on their facial makeup, which uses the same palette. A cosmetic sealer either mixed in the makeup or applied as a finish lessens deterioration as the actors perspire. Sessions were held during rehearsals to teach the actors how to do their own makeup. Avallone and her assistants still lend them a hand before each show begins.

Avallone personally handles star Michael Crawford's look as seductive Count von Krolock. "It's too complicated for him to do it himself," she explains. "It's a complete transformation into his character -- very handsome and sexy but very cold." Likening the shading and blending process she does on his face to painting a portrait, Avallone gives Crawford deep, dark eyes and a dramatic red mouth.

The hour-long procedure is elaborate but represents only half the time it took to turn Crawford into the grotesque Phantom of the Opera. Crawford slowly assumes the Count's personality as he is being readied for show time, reports Avallone. "He starts to say his lines or sing as we go along."

"Michael is such a pro," she observes. "He is so sensitive to the way his face moves that if the exact placement of one of his eyebrows is maybe one-32nd of an inch higher than it should be, he can feel that it's wrong."

Yet it takes more than mere makeup to create vampires. "On top of everything, we have teeth," says Avallone, opening a drawer that contains dozens of plastic fangs mounted on clay molds. Prosthetic artists molded each set to fit the actors' mouths. (During the show, Crawford employs two sets of fangs, long and short.) Everyone has back-up sets due to breakage. "Sometimes people drop their teeth," says Avallone with a shrug.

Like the makeup, creating the fangs took trial-and-error experimentation. "Just having something like that in your mouth while singing has been challenging to the actors," says Avallone. "Teeth affect the sound." She adds that the sound designers and even the composer have taken the fangs into consideration as they developed the show.

"Hygiene is key here and everything is kept very clean," Avallone explains. The fangs are kept apart in individual plastic boxes and disinfected between performances in a sonic cleaner purchased from a dental supply company.

Several hours before the cast arrives, Avallone, Kelly and Anderson prepare dozens of small plastic baskets. Each holds the specific makeup that actors use to switch their roles during the show. Once the curtain rises, few have sufficient time offstage to get to their dressing rooms, so these quick-changes in costume and makeup occur in booths located in the wings on either side of the stage.

"There's as much choreography going on backstage as there is onstage," says Avallone. "We have an entire system devised so that everything is preset in the baskets. The minute actors go back onstage we set up the new baskets they will need for their next change. Sometimes we even dip the brushes in the colors so all they have to do is dab a little color on." She and her assistants remain in the booths to help touch up everyone's looks.

As "Dance of the Vampires" continues to evolve during previews, Avallone and others are still making blood tests. "We have to coordinate the experiments with all departments," she says. "Blood involves costumes, the lights, the sound. Where blood comes from. How it's activated. How it looks."

Lately they've been perfecting a moment when a vampire leaves his coffin to get a bite. "He gets up, speaks and then sings while holding the blood in his mouth -- and finally bites somebody," says Avallone. She had hoped that a capsule might do the job, but the need to produce a bigger spurt of gore requires some other solution, to be determined.

Mixed backstage according to a homemade recipe, the "blood" consists of corn syrups, food coloring, starch and flavoring. "We can customize it," notes Avallone. "Chocolate or vanilla."




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