The stage of the Royale Theatre for Triumph of Love looks to the audience like a tranquil garden. But from underneath, it's a Rube Goldberg contraption of trap doors, chains, elevators, velour curtains, electrical wires, "sun roof" hatches, plywood and hunks of scenery.
The show is designed by Heidi Ettinger so things can vanish and appear, giving the whole enterprise a magical, animated-cartoon feeling. But it ain't magic. Cued stage hands gather beneath the trap doors with the carefully arrayed props: a mace, a battle axe, etc. On stage the audience just sees the comics reaching behind the hedges and pulling up these items. From below, the hands are perched on ladders, snatching the items from a rack, and pushing them up to Porazzi's cue.
"The secret of a good backstage is organization," says the veteran of a dozen Broadway openings.
The seeming chaos is actually carefully designed and hung, run by computer-timed motors, overseen by the stage crew, and cued by Stage Manager Arturo Porazzi. He watches the proceedings on three screens: one showing the conductor, one showing the stage in black & white, and one showing the stage in infra-red light, so he can "see" what's happening there even during blackouts.
What's it like, experiencing a Broadway musical from under the stage? Thumping of feet, muffling words, bangs, the skewed audio of the orchestra heard through a curtain. A moment of complete silence while some sight gag is executed, then the swell of resulting audience laughter, like leaves or waves. "I guess they like it!" Porazzi murmurs into his headset. He cues the effects not only with his voice, but with a system of electric lights, red, blue and yellow, so the hands and technicians can keep them straight when they come fast.
F. Murray Abraham gets ready to make his magical appearance. He enters the basement in his black boots, azure coat and forbidding shaved head. He glances around, then closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. He stretches his legs in the boots and steps into a curved black niche taller than he is. He sips from an out-of-place plastic water bottle, and, when the song "Mr. Right: Reprise" ends, Porazzi cues the computer operator. A button is pushed, a motor hums and, as dark chords boom from the orchestra, the whole niche, Abraham included, rises into the Leko light of the open stage.