By Kristine McKenzie
Guitar player Lionel Hamel is positioned in front of the mirror in his dressing room, makeup brushes in hand, by 3 p.m. to transform his face in time for his 7 p.m. performance in Cirque du Soleil’s “KÀ.”
Performer Buyi Zama hops into the makeup chair just 40 minutes before show time while a professional makeup artist applies her brightly-colored tribal-style makeup for Disney’s “The Lion King” at Mandalay Bay.
The stars of “Le Rêve” at Wynn coat their faces with powder in hopes of making their makeup stay on throughout 75 minutes of performing in the water that serves as the show’s stage.
Makeup is used as a powerful tool to convey emotion, enhance costumes and create memorable characters in many Las Vegas productions. Makeup artists and performers all over town work hard behind the scenes to make sure that the final product audiences see on stage leaves a lasting impression.
“Number one, it should help the performer get into character, but the audience needs to buy into it too,” said Ron Wild, makeup artist for “Phantom –The Las Vegas Spectacular” at the Venetian.
For Zama, who plays Rafiki in Disney’s “The Lion King,” putting on makeup is crucial in helping her become her character, as well as helping her lower her inhibitions on stage. “Otherwise I would just feel naked,” she said.
A do-it-yourself job
Besides all of the usual things that a performer does like singing, dancing or playing music, many of those who work in Las Vegas shows are also tasked with applying their own makeup.
One of the most recognizable makeup jobs in Las Vegas is the brightly-painted “Blue Man Group.” While the makeup might seem like a very simple concept, it does take some work for the performers to achieve their signature look. Blue Man Group performer Scott Speiser said it takes about 45 minutes to get into makeup and wardrobe before a show and the performers do a good portion of it by themselves.
“At first it is difficult, but then you get used to it and quite simply, you get good at it. Everyone has their own routine, but the tricky part is figuring out what will work best for you at that time,” said Speiser. “We wear bald caps held down to our face with glue. We want the bald cap to stay on our head for the entire show (and often two shows), but as we sweat, the glue loosens up. We don’t want the cap to come up in the middle of a show… at the same time, we don’t want the cap to be too difficult to remove at the end of a show.”
The makeup the performers use, which comes in cakes, is called “Blue Man Blue” and was made specifically for the group. Speiser says each Blue Man uses one to two cakes of greasepaint per show and it has to cover every inch of the performers’ faces, including their mouths. “Every once in a while, the makeup tastes a little like an asparagus risotto with a tinge of garlic powder,” Speiser joked. “But most of the time it’s pretty tasteless. It’s like a bland, tasteless paste.”
Part of a Cirque du Soleil performer’s job is to do their own makeup, so workshops in makeup techniques are part of the training provided to artists. Cirque du Soleil makeup designer Nathalie Gagné teaches performers how to do their own makeup and then writes a step-by-step application guide for each of them to follow, complete with pictures illustrating exactly how the makeup should look.
Hamel has one of the more complicated makeup designs in “KÀ” and it takes him about an hour and a half to apply it. He said it took hundreds of applications before he was able to do his 26-step makeup design without the guide. “I was not born with a brush in my hand,” he said. “Outside of Halloween, I had never put makeup on.” (See photos as “KÀ” guitar player Lionel Hamel undertakes the half hour process of transforming his face).
Hamel paints his face with oil-based makeup in red, orange, yellow, black and white, and then sets the look with powder. After the powder, he goes over the whole design with the colors again to redefine the lines and get a more precise look. If a slip-up does happen, Hamel said he has to make it match on the other side because it’s easier than trying to correct. Mistakes don’t happen all that often though – the performers go through makeup reviews each year, which are basically refresher courses to ensure they are still applying it correctly.
Calling in the pros
Other Vegas performers, like Zama, are lucky enough to have a professional makeup artist who comes in to complete the design. “Thank God, because I am not that talented,” said Zama. (Watch as “Disney’s The Lion King” star Buyi Zama is transformed into Rafiki.)
The show has five makeup artists who perfect the characters’ complicated tribal designs and elaborate painted-on animal faces. “Lion King” Hair and Makeup Supervisor Juliette White uses a water-based body paint that is manufactured in Belgium. She paints seven colors, applied in a very specific sequence, onto Zama’s face when she is creating the Rafiki character. During the process, Zama has to sit very still, not talk much and keep her eyes closed while some of the makeup dries. She said it’s not her favorite part of the process, but White chats with her and keeps her company or she listens to music while she’s being made up.
Another show that involves makeup that’s too complicated for the actor to do himself is “Phantom – The Las Vegas Spectacular.” The mask worn by the title character has become an icon in the world of theater, but what lies beneath it is just as integral to the story of a disfigured man who lives beneath the Paris Opera House, hiding his face from the world.
During one of the songs, the Phantom laments about his face, which “earned a mother’s fear and loathing.” Creating a face that startling takes expert makeup skills and that’s where Wild comes in. (See photos of “Phantom” star Anthony Crivello as he is transformed by Ron Wild).
A two-time Emmy Award-winning makeup artist, Wild has a background in film and television. When the Las Vegas version of the show opened, the directors thought it was a good time to redesign the makeup, which hadn’t changed in the production’s 20-plus-year history — and Wild was the man to do it.
Wild said because of the theater’s size, the makeup had to have a little more oomph. “I didn’t think it had enough impact,” he said. “It needed a more textured design.” Wild said he also wanted to bring a more realistic, film quality to the makeup. Wild spends an hour each night working his magic on Anthony Crivello, who plays the Phantom. “My head is a canvas,” said Crivello. “I literally watch myself being transformed.”
The makeup, which includes prosthetic pieces on the right side of the face, is custom fit to the performer. A full head cast of Crivello was taken and everything was tailored specifically for his face.
The foundation of the Phantom’s makeup is a bald skull cap, which takes about a half-hour to fit, glue, dry and trim to perfectly mold to Crivello’s head. Next, the prosthetics are glued onto Crivello’s face. “By having everything custom made to Tony’s face, everything just kind of falls into place,” Wild said.
Each piece is used only once, so a supply of the pieces is kept on hand. One week per month, Wild sets time aside to prepare them and painstakingly paint them.
The makeup on the other half of the Phantom’s face is painted on. Wild said he wanted to create an old-fashioned Hollywood movie makeup style on that side. The makeup he uses is castor oil-based, which stops it from soaking into the rubber prosthetics.
Mishaps can happen during the show. The bald cap can tear very easily, which affects the rest of the makeup and there’s not much time for repairs during the show, which has no intermission. “If something goes wrong, he’s doing Frankenstein surgery on the back of my head,” said Crivello. Anything can happen – it’s live.”
While anyone who works with makeup encounters little challenges here and there, one show faces a big challenge every night: water.
“Le Rêve” takes place in, around and above a round, 1.1-million gallon tank of water that serves as a stage.
Since all of the performers are constantly swimming, diving and splashing in the water, finding makeup that will stand out, but won’t wash off presents a big problem.
Jan Scherry, head of wardrobe for the show, says even though “Le Rêve” features a fairly natural makeup look, all 85 performers wear it. The makeup is waterproof, but there are still issues with keeping it intact. “Powder has a lot to do with it,” Scherry said. Applying lots of powder to set the makeup and having a makeup artist who can help the performers with touch-ups during the show helps keep the makeup looking fresh.
Having makeup that needs a lot of retouching means that the show goes through a lot of product. With two performances a night Thursday – Monday, makeup must be ordered in bulk, and often. Scherry said she gets makeup requests every day and orders items by the hundreds, including a recent order for 300 eyebrow pencils that will probably last just three months.
Taking it all off
It takes performers an extensive amount of time to get into makeup and for some it’s a big process to remove it as well.
White says “The Lion King” performers use baby wipes to remove the bulk of their makeup before washing it off with soap and water or using gentle removers. The makeup can’t just be wiped off with towels because the paint can actually clog the wardrobe department’s washing machines.
For Speiser, removing his makeup takes just as long as putting it on. “The blue makeup is greasepaint, so it doesn’t just come off with soap and water,” he said. “On a good night, the cap has stayed on for both shows, but is just loose enough to peel off at the end of the night without any irritation.”
Speiser said performers have to be careful – sometimes the paint ends up where it’s not intended. “It’s pretty common knowledge when you work for Blue Man Group that you don’t wear any expensive clothes on the stage or in the dressing rooms,” he said. “It gets everywhere. I find random clothes in my closet at home with blue on them. I’m not sure exactly how it got there, but it’s a powerful thing. It finds its way into many mysterious places.”
No matter who’s applying it or what type is used, there’s no denying that makeup adds something special to Las Vegas shows and helps audiences believe what they are seeing on stage. The use of makeup can be so powerful that it’s completely transformative for the performers who have to wear it every night as well.
“As soon as I put the makeup on, it’s not me anymore,” Zama said.
Crivello said the difference between what he looks like in real life and when he’s in full makeup is stunning. “I’ve been doing theater professionally for 37 years and prior to that was college and high school and my mother has seen everything I’ve been in,” said Crivello. “She was here for opening night and she said ‘I have always been able to see a little piece of my son in whatever character you’re doing,’ but this time she couldn’t. She lost me on the stage.”