Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
Nearly a decade after the musical Titanic docked in New York’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, Arlington’s Signature Theatre brings to the stage a production that is everything the original was not. Although it won the Tony Award for Best Musical, the Broadway production earned lackluster reviews. Nevertheless, Signature’s Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer remained a fan. “I’ve always loved the musical Titanic and I have felt that Signature should reinvent this musical for our audiences in an exciting new way,” he has said. With creative staging, an uber-talented cast, deft direction by Schaeffer, choreography by Matthew Gardiner, and an outstanding 17-piece orchestra (conductor, James Moore, musical coordinator, Jon Kalbfleisch), Signature has given new life to this musical.
Signature’s “ship of dreams,” is a three-story set in the center of the MAX Theatre with metal stairways rising from the stage to the rafters. Paul Tate Depoo III’s innovative scenic design arranges seats on all four sides of the stage so that the audience is never far from the action. While the story is well known – an ocean vessel that was regarded as a technological marvel meets a disastrous fate due to human error – Schaeffer manages to keep the tension high.
Sam Ludwig and Stephen Gregory Smith (Photo by Christopher Mueller)
As the passengers begin to file in, there are looks of amazement on their faces as they glimpse the Titanic’s majesty. In“How Did They Build the Titanic?”, Sam Ludwig as third class passenger Frederick Barrett, runs down the amazing stats for the ship. Forty-six thousand tons of steel/ Eleven stories high! /She’s a great palace, floating… /Quiet as a lullaby There’s no attempt to outdo the lavish sets that dominated James Cameron’s film version. With one crystal and gold chandelier showcasing the ship’s elegance, much is left to the imagination. It works.
Stephen Gregory Smith, Katie McManus (Photo by Colin Hovde)
The social makeup of the cast is on full display thanks to costume design by Frank Labovitz and wig design by Anne Nesmith. We meet the famous names in first class – the Astors (Matt Conner and Jamie Eacker) – as well as those below, like third class, celebrity- obsessed Alice Beane (an amusing performance by Tracy Lynn Olivera). Christopher Bloch plays the captain, who plans to retire after the ship reaches New York. While he’s an experienced navigator, he succumbs to pressure from J. Bruce Ismay (Lawrence Redmond), chairman of the White Star line, which owns the Titanic, to increase the ship’s speed in order to arrive in New York ahead of schedule. That move, of course, would prove to be the first of many mistakes made that doomed both the ship and its passengers.
The cast of Titanic (Photo by Paul Tate DePoo III)
Kevin McAllister conveys military bearing as one of the ship’s officers, going so far as to take responsibility for the ship hitting the iceberg. Christopher Mueller and Sean Burns are touching as young members of the ship’s staff who show incredible courage as they continue to serve the passengers who remain behind. There’s a touching moment in the ballad, “Still,” when Ida Strauss (Florence Lacey) refuses to board the lifeboat, opting to stay behind with her husband, Isidor (John Leslie Wolfe).
Christopher Bloch, Nick Lehan, Lawrence Redmond, and Bobby Smith (Photo by Christopher Mueller)
Bobby Smith, a Signature regular who last dazzled audiences in La Cage aux Folles, plays the ship’s designer, Thomas Andrews. His emotional lament is heartfelt in “Mr. Andrews’ Vision” – Just a cursory look at the blueprints here/ Shows the weaknesses that we have missed/ How the water poured in/A three-hundred-foot gash/And caused the bow to flood and to list.
The special effects that dramatize the sinking and the fate of those who died in the water are simply stunning. Who needs CGI when you have the brilliant minds behind this production?
While there are more than two dozen songs in Titanic, Maury Yeston’s musical score failed to produce even one hit. The strength of the Signature production is the large cast’s impressive vocal talents, on full display in the ensemble numbers at the beginning and, thrillingly, at the end of the show.
Top photo: The cast of Titanic, photo by Colin Hovde
Titanic Signature Theatre 4200 Campbell Avenue Arlington, VA 703-820-9771 Through January 29, 2017
Carousel was the second musical produced by the dynamic team of Rodgers and Hammerstein following their ground breaking Oklahoma! If audiences expected another feel good show, they were surprised. Carousel is based on Liliom, a somber 1909 play by the Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár. A failure when it was first staged in Hungary, Liliom fared better when it was produced on Broadway in 1921. Carousel, which opened on Broadway in 1945, received positive reviews and has since been revived numerous times. Carousel’s themes of forgiveness, healing, and redemption always seem to hit home. In that respect, Arena’s new production couldn’t come at a better time.
Despite the photos in Arena’s ads, there’s no actual carousel on the Fichandler circular stage. Indeed, Todd Rosenthal’s set design is rather sparse, with a floor of whitewashed wood and crates that are frequently rearranged depending upon the scene. The orchestra is housed in a gazebo, above the stage, while the music director, Paul Sportelli, waves his baton from a spot below the stage. Except for glowing stars in the second act, there are no props. The actors mime drinking coffee, playing the accordion, playing cards, digging clams, and picking up garbage. Without extraneous distractions, our attention stays focused on the players and their stories.
Billy Bigelow is a barker for a carnival in small town Maine. With his roughish good looks, Billy has no trouble attracting women, most of whom work in the local mill and come to ride the carousel for entertainment. He’s an alpha male and an irresistible draw for the shy and inexperienced Julie Jordan (Betsy Morgan). Nicholas Rodriguez, his black fedora tipped at a jaunty angle, brings to mind a young Sinatra, who was originally cast as Billy in the film. Billy and Julie assess their growing attraction in one of the musical’s best known songs, “If I Loved You,” a sweet moment that, unfortunately, sets up expectations that will never be met after the two are married. Billy is caught between two women; Julie, and Mrs. Mullin (E. Faye Butler), who not only owns the carnival, but acts like she owns Billy, too. When he defies her order to leave Julie and get back to work, she fires him. Julie, too, loses her job after missing her shift at the factory, choosing to stay with Billy at the carnival.
Betsy Morgan and Kate Rockwell
Julie’s good friend, Carrie (an exuberant Kate Rockwell), also has a boyfriend (Kurt Boehm). Rockwell’s heartfelt tribute to her beau, “Mister Snow,” glosses over his shortcomings. When I marry Mister Snow/ The flowers’ll be buzzin’ with the hum of bees. Neither woman hits the romance jackpot. Billy, beset by job and financial setbacks, will take his anger out on Julie, abusing her psychologically and actually hitting her at one point. (While some productions have downplayed this aspect of domestic violence, Director Molly Smith wisely recognizes that it’s a problem that hasn’t gone away.) Enoch Snow isn’t abusive, but he’s a control freak, seething with jealously. When he catches Carrie dancing with another man, he quickly breaks off their relationship. They reunite after Carrie desperately pleads with him.
For Billy, the turning point comes when Julie tells him she’s pregnant. Contemplating fatherhood, Billy is overjoyed. Rodriguez literally stops the show, his strong baritone delivering an emotional “Soliloquy.” You can have fun with a son/But you gotta be a father to a girl. Eager to provide for his child, Billy gives in to pressure from his shiftless friend, Jigger (a very convincing Kyle Schliefer), to rob the mill’s owner, David Bascombe (Thomas Adrian Simpson). The whole town is celebrating with a clam bake, and Billy and Jigger attend, using the event as a cover for eventually leaving and staging the holdup. Billy carries a knife that he plans to use to threaten Bascombe, not kill him. But when the plan goes awry, Billy opts to kill himself rather than face the possibility of prison. Julie holds Billy as he’s dying and finally whispers what she has never told him, “I love you.” Julie is comforted by her cousin, Nettie, played by Ann Arvia, delivering a gosse-bump-inducing “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
Now on the other side, Billy tries in vain to gain admittance to heaven, arguing with heavenly friend (Nicole Wildy) that he wants to see “The Highest Judge of All.” His one chance is to return to earth and try to redeem himself. Fifteen years have passed. Billy’s daughter, Louise, is now a teenager, and not a happy one, bullied by classmates about her criminal father. Skye Mattox’s Louise displays her hurt and passion in a dance sequence that is both sad and beautiful. It’s an exquisite piece of choreography by Parker Esse, with a tour de force performance by Mattox. She’s now on our radar.
Everything comes together in the end. Julie somehow feels Billy’s presence and knows that he did truly love her. Louise understands that her father’s mistakes are not hers and that her life is truly her own. And Billy’s visit to earth, where he makes himself visible to Louise, comforts her, and gives her a star, is enough to gain him admittance to heaven.
Kudos to costume designer Ilona Somogyi and wig designer Anne Nesmith for creating a period look that was both aesthetically pleasing and wonderful to look at without distracting from the performances.
Rodgers and Hammerstein never shied away from tackling important and, at times, controversial issues in their musicals. Oklahoma! has upbeat songs, but also deals with political and cultural issues that erupted between farmers and cattlemen. South Pacific and The King and I confront racism. Great musicals endure because at their core they have powerful messages that encourage us to be better than we are. Carousel does that. And it’s a message we need to hear now. Go see it.
Photos by Maria Baranova Top photo Betsy Morgan and Nicholas Rodriguez
Carousel Fichlander Theater Arena Stage 1101 Sixth Street SW Through December 24, 2016
Anne Nesmith often has to split hairs. The skilled wig designer has fashioned hair pieces for opera and theater productions in Washington, D.C. and around the world. Wigs have become an integral part of costume design, topping off, so to speak, what an actor wears to visually create a character. Anne’s wigs have been seen in numerous productions at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, including Sweeney Todd and The Threepenny Opera.
She is currently designing 45 wigs for Signature’s La Cage aux Folles which will run from May 31 through July 10. “This is a pretty big show, even for a musical,” Anne said about La Cage. “It’s not out of the ordinary to have this many wigs or more in an opera, say, but it is unusual to have so many in a straight play or musical.”
Image of the front lace of a wig showing how the hairs are tied in.
Designing a wig is painstaking work. “On average it takes me about 30 hours to build a wig start to finish. And I am pretty fast,” Anne explained. “You build a cap that fits an actor or singer’s head and then you tie knots of hair into it with a ventilating hook. The back of a wig can have three and four hairs but the front is tied with single hairs.” Tying a wig with hair that is very long or very kinky or curly, or with hair that is bad quality, can slow down the process, she said.
Anne’s wigs worn by Sherri L. Edelen and Ed Gero in Signature’s production of Sweeney Todd. Photo by Chris Mueller
What Annee really loves is to have the time to completely build a wig from front to back. “An entirely hand ventilated wig is beautiful,” she said. “There is not always time for that and, truly, it isn’t always the best solution. I also buy wigs from the wig store and cut them up so I have the stretch back and then I ventilate the top and front of the wig so it doesn’t have quite as much hair and has less bulk and is more natural looking.”
Anne said she mostly uses human hair wigs. “But for a show where the wigs really need to hold up (for a heavy dance show, for instance) I will use synthetic hair,” she said.
Bobby Smith is flanked by Donna Migliaccio (left) and Erin Driscoll wearing Anne’s wigs in Signature’s The Threepenny Opera. Photo by Photo by Margo Schulman
Anne has now been working in opera and theatre for more than 15 years. Besides her work for Signature, she has designed for John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Arena Stage, Ford’s Theatre, Shakespeare Theatre Company, the Lyric Opera of Baltimore and the Washington Ballet, among others. She has also designed shows for the Saito Kinen Festival in Matsumoto, Japan, Hyogo Performing Arts Center in Nishinomiya, Japan, Opera Boston, Wolf Trap Opera, Castleton Music Festival and Opera Delaware. Anne was the Resident Wig and Makeup Designer for the Baltimore Opera Company and has constructed wigs for the Scooby Doo Live! tour and the Asian tour of 42nd Street. Her work has also been seen in numerous Smithsonian National Portraits Gallery’s Cultures in Motion programs, Great Planeson the Military Channel, Ice Cold Killers for Investigation Discovery and the U.S. Army’s tour Spirit of America.
We asked Anne to answer our My Career Choice questions, to tell more about how she got started.
Can you point to one event that triggered your interest in your career?
Honestly, I fell into my career. Out of college I started working at a small theatre in Norfolk, Virginia, and met the man who was the wig designer at the opera down the street. I started working with him and for the next number of years worked at opera companies around the country. I learned a lot on my feet and along the way discovered I had an aptitude for wig-making.
What about this career choice did you find most appealing?
I have always appreciated the fluidity of this job. Each production exists for a very limited period of time so I begin my job fresh dozens of times a year. There is always turnover and always a new series of challenges.
What steps did you take to begin your education or training?
My degree was in design/technical theatre but I never worked with wigs when I was in school. When I got out of college I apprenticed and worked for a couple of very well-known wig designers. Under their mentorship I worked at a number of companies around the country until I began working as a designer myself.
Along the way, were people encouraging or discouraging?
I was very lucky; I was always encouraged.
Did you ever doubt your decision and attempt a career change?
I feel like I doubt my decision and consider a career change with every new project I undertake! While it is terrific to be continually working on something fresh and new you also restart everything with each new show. There is definitely a lot of pressure involved with continually reinventing and re-proving yourself creatively.
When did your career reach a tipping point?
When I went from being an assistant to designing for myself.
Can you describe a challenge you had to overcome?
I think it is tough for young women coming up in any profession. Through my 20’s and even into my 30’s I’m sure I was not always taken seriously.
What single skill has proven to be most useful?
I am, for the most part, a very good collaborator. In a profession that often has a lot of strong personalities I am able to put my ego aside. Almost everything about theatre is collaborative and as everyone involved works toward a common goal we all have to be willing to listen to one another.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
I am very pleased that as a free-lance artist I have been able to make this my full-time profession for my entire career.
Any advice for others entering your profession?
It served me very well to work with and for a lot of other designers. Everyone has a different aesthetic and set of strengths and you can learn something from everyone. It is best not to be too bound by what you think is the “right” way. I also think apprenticeships are lost in many professions and in this one in particular it is a great way to learn, work with a lot of other professionals and see your work immediately on stage.
Anne Nesmith’s top photo courtesy of Signature Theatre