Meet the Filipino Set Designer Behind Some of New York's Biggest Shows

With his fantastical sets and legendary vision, Eduardo "Toto" Sicangco transports his audience to a world that is out of the ordinary.

"Welcome to my nightmare," said Eduardo "Toto" Sicangco with a sweep of his arms. The New York-trained set and costume designer flew in from Manhattan then to design a themed affair inspired by Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. "Don’t go into that shell without your skirt on," he told the actress playing the role of Venus.

It was 2008. In the Rizal Ballroom of the Shangri-La Makati, the mood was feverish three hours before show time. "My nerves are frayed because I lack sleep," Toto admitted. He had been at the venue since 9 o’clock the night before, with two hundred workers and artists streaming in and out of the ballroom over the last 18 hours.

He disappeared in search of the skirt, and came back a minute later. Venus stepped into it daintily. "I love it!" she beamed. He adjusted the front. "Now show your leg," he commanded. A beautifully shaped leg peeped out of the frothy, sea-themed creation, fashioned from bluish white chiffon, showered with Swarovski crystals for a watery effect, and draped with strings of pearls over the waist and the hips.

The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, 1991.

Six feet and svelte, the statuesque actress was escorted by Toto to the 12-foot-high open clamshell at the center of the stage. She teetered on four-inch heels atop a white pearl the size of a beach ball inside the luminous shell. "Now cover your breasts, like Venus!" he instructed. "Look up. Flirt with the audience." Making one final adjustment, he asked her to let her waist-length hair flow over her left shoulder like a stream of black coffee. She was convincing as a goddess. This pleased him no end.

Toto skipped down the stage to the four Greco-Roman gods he had chosen as companions for Venus. "The men are going to be major eye candy tonight," he promisesd.

Four buff models who played Mercury, Pan, Bacchus, and Cupid were learning their moves from veteran director Audie Gemora. Toto conferred with Gemora, who was showing the models how to pose.

Clockwise from the top: The Imaginary Invalid, Asolo Repertory Theater, 2008; 2001: A Strip Odyssey, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids, 2001; The Imaginary Invalid, Asolo Repertory Theater, 2008.

They rehearsed the opening number. The curtains parted to reveal Venus in the clamshell. They parted in a rickety, squeaky way, ruining the moment.

Now Toto was upset. He specified lamé for the curtains and had gotten baby blue stretch velvet. The curtain was sewn in such a way that the seams connecting the four panels of fabric were full of creases. To camouflage this defect, Toto had talked to the lighting designer to shine patterns of light on the curtains. But at the end of the day, they still didn’t close properly.

In an elevator making our way to the costumes room on the third floor, he spoke to a pair of production assistants. "What a stupid mistake! That’s Set Design 101. I mean, they knew it had to open and close so they should have provided overlap." The baby blue velvet curtain in the ballroom did look shabbily made. And there’s nothing about Toto Sicangco’s work that is shabby.

Eduardo “Toto” Sicangco

What set him apart was his love for the craft and his exacting standards. "He puts his whole heart into his work, so he expects the same of those who work with him," said his sister Cecile Sicangco, former prima ballerina and artistic director of Ballet Philippines.

Brother and sister walked into the costumes room. "Have you all met my sister Cecile?" he asked the models and sewers. "My very own Barbie." Among a brood of five from Bacolod, Cecile and Toto were the closest. "Both of us understand each other because we are both artists," she said.

Toto took his leave to attend to more details downstairs, seconds before we registeed what was in the room. On a mannequin in a corner shone the gilded bustier he had designed for Venus. It was a breathtaking work of art. Cast in New York, it looked like molten gold poured over a woman’s torso. The bodice and waist were adorned with crystals, shells, and pearls. The back of the bustier was bare. It would be held in place by nothing more than a golden ribbon, crisscrossed like a corset.

La Fille Du Regiment, Texas Opera Theater, 1982.

"He applied the crystals himself," said award-winning set and costume designer Gino Gonzales, who was assisting Toto with the ball. Gonzales studied under Toto at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where Toto was Master Teacher of Design for almost a decade. "He really enjoys the craft."

The armor of Mercury was just as life-like in its contours, showing off rippling abs. For Mercury, Toto designed a codpiece and a gilded, winged helmet, and staff. Bacchus would be carrying a bottle of wine, a golden goblet, and, for modesty, he would have a generous bunch of grapes at the waist. The faun-like Pan would have horns on his head, golden locks dripping down his thighs and a braided blond tail to swish.

And so we realized there was nothing prudish about any of these costumes, or their designee. It was an all-out, show-off-your-beautiful-body show. And Toto Sicangco was as seasoned as they come.

Jim Luigs: “His work is informed, intelligent, calculated, nuanced, celebratory—but never ever pretentious.”

Left: The “Not” Mikado, Virginia Opera, 1993. RightRingling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, 2004.

His many credits include costumes for Carmen for the New York City Opera at the Lincoln Center, and sets and costumes for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in New York’s Lyceum Theater. He has designed sets and costumes for Babes in Toyland for the Houston Grand Opera, and for the Virginia Opera, sets and costumes for L’Elisir d’Amore and The "Not" Mikado. He has also done production, set and costume design for Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus, Siegfried and Roy and Walt Disney’s "World on Ice."

"His work is informed, intelligent, calculated, nuanced, celebratory—but never ever pretentious. That’s a rare and wonderful combination that informs his work," said American playwright and director Jim Luigs. "When I think of a perfect show for Eduardo to design, it’s a show that offers specific opportunities for the designer—just the right cape, or staircase, or hat, or sofa, or hatbox—ripe theatrical moments that need his special brand of inflection, celebration, his italics."

On what it was like to experience Toto’s work live, Luigs said: "He gives and gives and gives throughout the evening, and the audiences respond with joy and appreciation and, often, with spontaneous applause for the beauty and the wit of the sets and costumes he presents."

Play On, Crossroads Theater Company, 1999.

For years, Toto did the sets for "Broadway Cares," an annual event of the theater community to raise funds to mitigate the suffering of people with HIV and AIDS. One year he designed costumes for "2001: A Strip Odyssey," depicting the constellations in various stages of undress. His sketches of Libra show her weighing her breasts, while Aries dons the horns of a ram.

"My work is about telling a story visually," said Toto. "It’s about supporting the text and the other collaborators like the director and the actors. I have to find this character’s motivation and social background. There’s a lot of thinking and feeling."

Unlike other set and costume designers, Toto has been doing the sketches himself. "His renderings are very precise road maps," shared  Gonzales. "The challenge for the assistant or the shop is to get it done the way it is drawn.'

Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park 1989.

Toto usually begins by asking for headshots of the actors, so he can capture the personality of the character. "I like to make the actor feel confident being beautiful, or beautifully ugly," he said. "If an actor goes on stage feeling they look good, it’ll show."

"The actors love his clothes," confirmed Luigs. "His costumes are tools for skilled actors, and it’s always a joy to watch them hit the stage, fully confident that they are in the correct costume for the scene or song at hand."

"Creating the environment for the story to happen" is how Toto has been seeing his role as set designer. Working with gouache, he paints a show portal and show curtain depicting the stage from the audience’s perspective. "They are a way to the final product," he explained. "I’m old-school in terms of doing things by hand. I don’t like to do anything half-baked. I try to simulate the finished product as much as I can." The result, as always, are exquisitely detailed works of art by a master of theater.

This story was originally published in the October 2008 issue of Town&Country. Edits have been made by the editors. 

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