David I. Mitchell, who did the scenic design for more than 30 Broadway shows, was nominated for seven Tony Awards and won two, died of cancer on yesterday, October 3, in Los Angeles. He was 79.
His Tony-nominated shows were “Barnum”, “Annie”, “Trelawny of the Wells”, “Working”, “Can-Can”, “Foxfire” and “The Boys of Winter”. Other Broadway work included “La Cage aux Folles” and Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and “Biloxi Blues”; his last Rialto effort was the musical revue “Dream” in 1997.
Mitchell won his Tonys for his whimsical, circus-like set design of the 1980 musical “Barnum” and for the Studs Terkel-inspired 1978 musical “Working”.
Playbill recalled Frank Rich’s review of Barnum for The New York Times:
“When circumstances require it, Mr. Mitchell is not averse to sending scenery flying from all directions, including the floor. Yet the set is more than a collection of pretty gimcracks. Its roseate, gaslit glow and golden crown of letters spelling out America suggest another, deeper entertainment.”
In New York, Mitchell worked as an assistant to Ming Cho Lee for several years and, through him, began a longtime association with Joseph Papp, designing sets both for Shakespeare in the Park and the Public Theater. At the New York City Ballet, he designed works for Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine, as well as “Sleeping Beauty.” His opera designs included works at the New York City Opera (“Mephistophele”) and other U.S. opera houses as well as Deutsche Oper in Berlin (“Aida”).
Mitchell didn’t get to achieve every one of the innumerable ideas he dreamt up for Barnum. One notion was to send the actors playing Barnum and singer Jenny Lind up in the air in a balloon that would fly to the second balcony on a steel track. Then the director discovered the needed insurance would cost “something like $2 billion.” “That took care of the balloon.”
Photo: Michael Crawford in Barnum, 1981