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When Promised Valley Playhouse first presented "Annie" last year as its holiday season production, audiences "oohed" and "aahed" (awed?) over the spectacular scenery and lighting - especially the stunning comic-strip finale.

While the on-stage performers frequently get most of the kudos, there's a lot of behind-the-scenes preparation that spells the difference between a professional-looking show and an amateurish, just so-so presentation.Meet Seven Nielsen, set designer, and John Moran, lighting designer/

technical director at the Playhouse.

Their job is to make the actors look good - without attracting a lot of undue attention.

Their job is also to create just the right mood or atmosphere for each scene - but in a subtle way, so that the theatergoers aren't consciously aware.

Seeing Nielsen and Moran together, you'd almost think they were a comedy team instead of a lighting/

scenery team. Both men have an impish aura about them, joking with each other and breaking into infectious grins. But when it comes to mounting a show, they're all business.

One of the key scenes in "Annie" takes place in the shanty town of Hooverville under the 59th Street Bridge along New York City's East River. It's the early 1930s, during the Great Depression. When all the lights are on and the painted backdrop is brightly and completely saturated with light, it looks just like a big mural. But with intricately placed lighting, the scene takes on a darker tone, and the rusted steel structure of the bridge has a startling 3-D feel, almost soaring right off the canvas, across the proscenium and up into the rafters.

Nielsen and Moran are practically inseparable when it comes to working on a show. The painting, and subsequent lighting, of a set literally go hand in hand. To borrow a phrase from one of the songs from a musical version of "Our Town" - you "can't have one without the other."

Nielsen, who grew up in the Salt Lake Valley, has supervised the designing and painting of scenery at Promised Valley Playhouse for several years. He also has been involved in a number of television and film projects. One of his clients is Hasbro Toys, for which he helps design and film commercials abroad several times a year.

He's also designed productions for the Disney Studios, the Osmonds, Dick Van Dyke specials and the Wayne Newton show in Las Vegas, along with shows for Bob Hope, Ben Vereen and Barbara Walters. And he designed the 1980 inaugural ball for President Ronald Reagan.

But what he really enjoys about his PVP assignment is the opportunity he has to grab a paint brush and jump into the actual painting of some of the scenery. He does have a crew of talented helpers, but it's also fun to apply himself - and some paint - in the production of the scenery.

All too often, he told us, his extracurricular assignments in designing ads for his private clients are exercises in corporate bureaucracy, where every step of the design process is entangled in one committee or another.

"But it's great to work with the Playhouse's management," Nielsen said. "I have the free rein to just do my job."

And he does it well.

Just ask the folks who've seen "Annie" this year and last Christmas, or this past summer's big hit, "Celebrating the Light," where Nielsen fashioned the interior of Noah's Ark for one of that production's key sequences.

Another of Nielsen's recent proj-ects was designing the sets for the video version of "Saturday's Warrior," which was taped at the Osmond Studios in Orem.

"You don't get rich working at PVP," said Nielsen, "but it's richly rewarding. I consider it `paying my tithing on my talent.' "

Nielsen said that the Playhouse considers "Annie" as a sort of theatrical Christmas card to the community, so he designed a piece with holly and red berries that encircles the entire proscenium to give the whole show a "Christmas card" feel.

The show's director, Kim Burningham, wanted "Annie" to be as true to its comic strip roots as possible, so he researched the beloved comic strip and came up with several ideas for making the musical as authentic as possible. The comic strip-style word balloons for the show's whizbang finale came out of this concept.

And - new for the 1989 production - are a couple of surprises, along with a new art-deco set for the NBC radio studio set (where the toothpaste commercial, "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile" is performed).

John Moran's lighting, of course, is an integral part of the scenery design process.

"You can't see anything if the lights aren't on," he said.

And, conversely, you could see too much if too many lights are on.

"Lighting" involves more than merely switching on a bunch of spotlights. With the help of a state-of-the-art computerized lighting board, Moran can create hundreds of different moods.

Using a variety of shades of backlighting, saturated lighting, side lighting or minimal lighting, among others, he can subtly change the entire mood for the audience, even during the course of one scene.

One of his tricks is to use backlighted transluscent drops to make them appear iridescent.

Moran grew up in Los Angeles and was majoring in mathematics at Santa Monica College when, early on, he realized that a career in math could be boring.

"I love the orderliness of math, but I like the creativeness of being able to work in the entertainment industry," he said.

So he switched his major into theater and later, attending the University of California at Los Angeles, he had a great time working with all of the newest equipment available.

"UCLA has lots and lots of money and I was able to use equipment that I've never seen anywhere else," he said.

In 1974 he began working for the Westwood Playhouse in Los Angeles (on a production of "The Little Foxes" with Carroll O'Connor, Lee Grant and Burgess Meredith).

"That was an enjoyable experience and sealed what I wanted to do as a career," he said.

Moran worked on the technical aspects of the early touring productions of "Saturday's Warrior."

He's worked in more than 120 different theater facilities as a designer - not an easy task, considering that theaters, stages and auditoriums come in all shapes and sizes, with their own peculiar lighting and staging needs.



Last week for `Annie'

Promised Valley Playhouse's production of "Annie" is being presented Monday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., with a matinee on Saturday at 2 p.m. The show's final performances are Saturday, Dec. 23.

For tickets, contact the PVP box office at 364-5696. The Playhouse is located at 132 S. State.

Admission to the Playhouse includes free parking at the adjacent parking terrace (entered from Second South between Main and State).