Pottstown designer awaits Tony Awards night

Posted: May 29, 2012

To create the set for the Broadway smash Newsies, Pottstown resident Tobin Ost served multiple masters: a choreographer who needed space for his performers to dance, a director who envisioned a jungle-gym effect, a writer who moved the action from scene to scene, and producers who worried about the box office.

So the scenic designer crafted a tiered, tic-tac-toe metalscape that separates, recedes and rotates. Performers dance up, down, and through it during a musical set in turn-of-the-century New York.

For his efforts, Ost has been nominated for a Tony Award.

"I tried hard to ignore it when the announcements were coming out. I just didn’t want to have any assumptions," Ost, 38, said of hearing the news "Then, my partner called and he was crying for joy."

The achievement (Ost was co-nominated with Newsies’ projection designer, Sven Ortel) is a milestone in the career of a man who designed his first shows as a teenager growing up in Michigan.

Newsies is a Disney juggernaut, a sellout show about the 1899 New York newsboys strike that forced newspaper barons William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer to capitulate to the scrappy teens (newsies) who sold their publications.

The show has eight Tony nominations. The awards are to be presented June 10.

"When I go into [New York], I pinch myself," Ost said. "I find myself glancing down 41st Street to make sure that marquee is still there. Has this really happened?"

Ost travels often to New York from Pottstown, where he moved three years ago to escape the chaos of Manhattan and live with his partner, who had found their quaint 1937 Colonial revival house.

His career includes sets and costume designs for several Broadway productions, including Brooklyn: The Musical and Bonnie & Clyde; a Los Angeles production of Pippin; and Washington stagings of Shenandoah and The Civil War.

Ost started tinkering with set design while growing up in Adrian, Mich., under the tutelage of a grandmother who was a painter and aunts who were art teachers.

Ost wanted to be an architect. When he was turned down for an internship at an architectural firm, he walked across an Adrian street to the Historic Crosswell Opera House. Ost asked then-director Robert Soller for a job.

Soller put Ost to work building and painting sets. When Ost saw the design for a Crosswell production of The Pirates of Penzance, he was smitten.

"The bow of the ship came out over the audience and it made my jaw drop," Ost said. By the time he had graduated from high school, Ost had designed sets for Crosswell productions of Carmen and La Traviata.

He went on to study at NYU, the University of Michigan, and Yale. He then moved to New York, where he made a living assisting his former design professors who were working in New York. Later, he worked with legendary scenic and costume designer Santo Loquasto, who was born in Wilkes-Barre.

"He has no sense of how truly gifted he is," Loquasto said of Ost in a phone interview. "He’s a consummate technician, a model-maker with expertise that you rarely see. Sort of museum quality, making furniture and little people."

Ost’s big break came 10 years ago when director Jeff Calhoun called him to ask if he was interested in designing costumes for a Broadway-bound Brooklyn: The Musical. Calhoun, also a Tony nominee for Newsies, asked Ost for a few sketches.

Ost was on a camping trip at the time. "I was drawing in a tent with a lantern, and bugs flying around," he said.

The partnership has spanned seven shows, with Newsies being the biggest hit.

"The brilliance of Newsies," said Pittsburgh native Calhoun, 51, whose parents formerly lived in Malvern, "is that [the set] looks like a tenement building from 1890s New York. It looks like a New York skyline and the Industrial Revolution. It looks like everything it needs to look like to tell the story, but at the same time it looks like modern sculpture that moves like a character in the play."

Ost created the set in his pristine second-floor studio on a tree-lined Pottstown street, which also houses his collection of wine corks and fortunes from fortune cookies, costume books, models of sets for Bonnie & Clyde, and a preliminary model for a forthcoming Broadway-bound tour of Jekyll & Hyde that he is working on with Calhoun.

His theater connections in the area include teaching a scenic-design class at Ursinus College. John Raley, an adjunct faculty member at the school, built the model for the Newsies set for the show’s pre-Broadway run at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey.

For ideas, Ost doesn’t just sit in his studio and think. Inspiration comes at the oddest times. It has hit him while walking his dog and serving jury duty.

"You never know what you will see or what it will trigger," Ost said. "Sometimes you just have to wait."

Contact Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or kholmes@phillynews.com.

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