SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — The house lights at Theatre by the Sea dimmed, and a soft orange light shone upon a sheer veil, decorated with a “Rydell High ’59” emblem. Danny Zuko and Sandy Dumbrowski held each other’s hands and kissed. As the veil lifted, the stage lights brightened and the T-Birds, clad in leather jackets and with slicked-back hair, burst out of a row of 10-foot-tall books singing “Grease.”
The number was upbeat, but it brought Nate Bertone to tears. The set pieces he designed for the show looked and functioned exactly how he had envisioned. This was a moment, he said, that would stay with him forever.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better opening night,” Bertone, scenic designer for the production, said at the end of last Friday’s show. “I’m so fortunate to have gotten this chance.”
Bertone, 20, of Salem, Mass., has already worked with the likes of Tony Award-winning scenic designer Beowulf Borrit. He has helped design sets for several community and collegiate productions, but “Grease,” which runs until July 19, is his first solo professional venture. And to think he got his first paid job in theater as an usher at North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly.
Bertone was first drawn to set design while part of an ensemble cast at a Collins Middle School production of “Into the Woods.” During the numbers he didn’t perform, he had to move around scenery in the background.
“Pushing around those pieces of set is the moment I look back to,” he said. “I knew there was more [to scenic design] then. There was more to the story.”
After that, he never saw a musical or a play in quite the same way. The connections between the characters and the set pieces intrigued him more with each new performance.
Bertone began ushering for North Shore Music Theatre in high school, where he was inspired by the theater’s intricate set designs for its in-the-round productions.
It was at North Shore that Bill Hanney, owner of both the Beverly theater and Theatre by the Sea in Rhode Island, met Bertone. “I knew him as the kid that worked in my theater, and then he just blossomed into this professional and creative designer,” Hanney said.
Now a rising junior at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Bertone has been able to put his inspirations into practice. Among the collegiate productions for which he has designed sets was a play he wrote and directed called “Letters From War,” a musical about a woman with Alzheimer’s disease reconnecting with her past through letters found by her granddaughter.
Bertone knew Carnegie Mellon was the right fit after his college visit “scared him in a good way.” It is the oldest degree-granting drama school in the nation, with a long list of award-winning alumni.
“I constantly tell myself that if my dreams don’t scare me, they are not big enough,” Bertone said. “Carnegie Mellon scared me. I knew it would be a challenge and I would have to work hard every single day. But that’s something I knew I had to do to reach my dreams.”
His in-class and extracurricular theater experience helped him secure an internship with the off-Broadway company Second Stage Theatre in New York City, where he worked under Boritt and Mark Wendland. Bertone built the shadow puppetry for Boritt’s set in “Murder for Two” and participated in research to help with the designs for “Little Miss Sunshine.”
“Nate is a hard-working and very ambitious guy. He did some great work for me last summer,” Boritt said. Bertone attended the Tony Awards last month, where Boritt won for “Act One.”
With so much experience under his belt, Bertone felt ready to offer mock-up set designs to NSMT. He designed a mock-up in-the-round set for the theater’s production of “The Wizard of Oz” and presented it to Hanney last season. Designing for North Shore has been a dream of Bertone’s since he first started attending the theater.
“It wasn’t the direction we were going for with that production, but I saw potential there,” Hanney said. “That was when I thought it’d be fun to have him come down for ‘Grease’ for this season.”
Hanney was looking for a fresh spin on the classic musical. He thought that director and choreographer Kevin Hill and Bertone would share a similar vision. “There were a lot of no’s in the drafting period, but once we found what we liked, it was easy,” Hanney said.
Hanney and Bertone separately came up with a yearbook theme for the “Grease” scenery. Hill loved the idea, envisioning the characters jumping off the pages.
“ ‘Grease’ is one of those shows that is done the same way every single time,” Hill said. “This was a take that really inspired creativity and was character driven. The characters get to tell their story through their songs and lines as well as their interactions with the set.”
Hill enjoyed collaborating with Bertone. “We really worked together in making what we both envisioned a reality” — a reality that culminated with the Pink Ladies and the T-Birds stepping out of those giant books for their end-of-show bows last week. Bertone was the first to give the cast a standing ovation — followed soon by the rest of the theater — clapping and cheering on the actors who brought his first professional set designs to life.