Small World After All
By Hugh Hart
Published Jan 1, 2017 8:00 AM
TFT Professor Myung Hee Cho reinvents classic Disney costumes for a whole new stage.
How do you make Snow White “pop” when she’s singing outdoors for 4,000 visitors in front of the world’s largest Disney castle? That question faced UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television Professor Myung Hee Cho when she agreed to help design sets and costumes for Golden Fairytale Fanfare. Launched at Shanghai Disneyland, a cultural mélange that opened in June, the 17-minute song and dance spectacle features Mickey Mouse, seven dwarves and six charmingly iconic princesses performing onstage several times a day.
Cho, known for designing spare contemporary dramas, embraced Fanfare as a refreshing change of pace. “It’s a different kind of storytelling,” she says. “You have to connect with the audience in a much shorter span of time than a regular theater piece, but it still has to have a heart. We used the costumes and set design to help tell the story for the young Chinese audience, as well as their parents and grandparents.”
Collaborating with Fanfare director Shi-Zheng Chen and Walt Disney Imagineering Creative Entertainment executive Tom Williams, Cho ensured that the princesses stood out on stage by making subtle adjustments to their classic looks. “I kept small world after all Snow White’s silhouette, but I gave her sleeves a reflective quality by blending shards of Mylar and sequins and reflective PVCs,” she says. “This way, the saturation of the colors is slightly enhanced.”
Fanfare’s eye-popping theatricality brings Cho full circle to the experience that sparked her career. Born in Seoul, South Korea, she moved to the Bronx at age 13, studied art at The Cooper Union and started working as a graphic designer. Then she went to the opera. “My sister took me to see Aida, and everything on that stage was so lush and creative and fascinating,” she recalls. “I realized someone had to design all these things and immediately felt, ‘This is what I want to do.’ ”
After designing such shows as Wit and Lackawanna Blues, Cho joined the UCLA faculty in 2009. “I didn’t know if I’d have much to offer, but once I started teaching, it felt right to me,” she says. “My students learn a great deal, not just on their own projects but by working on larger productions that I am involved in.”
For Fanfare, Cho enlisted a number of students to assist in costume rendering while her protégé Ji Young Lee, a Walt Disney Imagineering intern, oversaw pre-production design tweaks in Shanghai.
Now head of UCLA's M.F.A. Design Program, Cho recently designed costumes for the Washington National Opera’s production of The Marriage of Figaro. She continues to savor the balance between classroom and stage: “When I tap into my students’ passions, it’s just as exciting as my own design career.”