The four Aussies of Human Nature are working through a Motown number, as is their wont. The song is the Supremes classic “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” The seven-piece backing band booms through this rehearsed run-through. The vocal group’s spot-on harmonies and tight, step-to-it choreography belie their attire: jeans, T-shirts, a leather jacket, the odd hoodie.
The nifty suits and ties will be donned a couple of nights later during the act’s reintroduction at the redesigned and newly named Sands Showroom at the Venetian.
British-born stage visionary Andy Walmsley is gazing at the performance. Or is he? He’s tracking the stage with a tiny laser penlight. The green dot darts from the theater’s wings, where a series of neon-like light strips have been installed, to the open space above the performers.
“When I first saw this room, it was very dated,” says Walmsley, seated in the second level of seats and near the middle of the 740-seat theater. “There were very red curtains and dark wood. The first thing I noticed was I hated that little red curtain.”
He points the light to the area where once a sliver of fabric, maybe two feet long, stretched high across the stage.
“We took that down,” he says. “That horrible little curtain, by taking it down, has given the stage a very ‘open’ feel. It’s not a big stage to begin with, and we needed to make it look bigger.”
To the untrained eye, the stage on which Human Nature performs does look higher than before. But it isn’t. And that is Walmsley’s gift. When any other audience member would merely glance at that curtain and think “red” or “pretty” or not notice it at all, Walmsley sees an opportunity to add by subtracting.
Of course, there is more to Walmsley’s contribution to the upgraded Human Nature production, which reopened Friday night at the Venetian after a 3 ½-year stint at Imperial Palace in a theater that was eventually named for them. Walmsley is a three-time Emmy nominee who won that award in 2010 for his work on “American Idol.”
Walmsley’s list of design credits is lengthy. “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” “America’s Got Talent,” “So You Think You Can Dance” and “The Biggest Loser” are all his creations. Walmsley has designed the sets for 16 Las Vegas productions since moving to the city a decade ago. Among them: Nathan Burton’s comedy-magic show at Flamingo Las Vegas, Frank Marino’s “Divas Las Vegas” at the Quad (an updated version due in February) and Terry Fator’s puppetfest at the Mirage. The latter is likely Walmsley’s most prestigious work in Las Vegas -- until the new Human Nature show.
The thing to know about Walmsley is he is very picky. Of Fator’s show, which is a dazzling stage presentation, he says, “I don’t like the stage carpet at the Fator show. Silver and shiny floors are my favorites. Gloss and shine, so as soon as your eye hits it, you think of Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly dancing across it.”
Though 46 years old, Walmsley has an antiquated sense of stage design that dates back generations and hearkens to his family lineage. His great-great grandfather was a comic who performed in the family’s hometown of Blackpool, England, commonly known as the Las Vegas of Britain (though Walmsley laughs that it’s more like Reno or Atlantic City, or a wrung below the Strip). His grandfather was a bass player who performed in symphonies. His father was a comic who incorporated a trumpet into his act. His grandmother played piano onstage accompanying silent movies. His mom was a fire-eater in variety shows. For real, that was her role.
Thus, it’s clear why Walmsley says he was “born in a trunk” and since he was a kid sweeping stage floors has held every job conceivable in the creation and execution of live entertainment. He fronts his own stage design company, AWE (Andy Walmsley Entertainment.
Walmsley himself is not a performer but does play five instruments (drums, sax, clarinet, piano and trumpet). He delights in remaking the confines of a venue so it is beautiful and is saddened that the craft seems to be ebbing as producers cut corners to put on shows here.
“The smaller shows just can’t afford it,” he says. “They don’t spend what they should on sets. When I first started coming to Las Vegas, ever since 1990 when I was still living in England, you expected great shows. It’s not the entertainers -- the entertainers are still great -- but the production isn’t what it once was. People just don’t do what we’re doing.”
Cost is clearly the reason. Adam Steck, founder of SPI Entertainment and the show’s producer, says the outlay for Walmsley’s work at Sands Showroom is in the high six figures.
“It looks like a million dollars,” Walmsley says, not inaccurately.
The room employs video screens at each side, and its stage is cloaked in black. The red hues and wooden effects used first by comic impressionist Gordie Brown, for whom the theater was built in 2006, are gone. Stick-like LED lights have been built into the set and at each side, appearing as if authentic neon has been incorporated. The video screens are framed in a classic silver trim. The musicians are positioned on steep platforms and step down a series of stairs to the front of the stage, which juts out just a few feet from the first row.
In general, the stage looks vast -- certainly larger than it actually is. It feels strange to view it from the audience, then take a spot from the set and look out toward the seats. It’s as if the room has shrunk.
“Black is the magic color of theater,” Walmsley says. “It makes everything look bigger and retro.”
That’s Walmsley’s signature style -- somewhat space age, yet throwback, all at once. Steck and he were seeking an old Motown vibe, which seems achieved. But when Eddie and Brian Holland, co-writers of many of the Motown songs in Human Nature’s act, visited the set last week, they saw something different. The two Motown architects said it looked like something out of “Star Trek.”
“I can see that,” Walmsley says. “But then we have people say it reminds them of ‘Sonny & Cher.’ ”
The guys in Human Nature are just about to break, but Mike Tierney is not quite finished. The performer grabs a nearby prop -- a broom -- and gives the gleaming black floor a once-over.
“I love it,” Walmsley says. “They won’t stop sweeping it. Every two minutes, someone is sweeping it. They are really part of it.”
Indeed. The singers who favor Motown are treating their stage like a new car -- right off a Detroit showroom.