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
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
Getting into the elevator following Signature Theatre’s production of Road Show, one woman was overheard saying to her friend: “I liked West Side Story better.” The musicals have Stephen Sondheim in common. (He wrote the lyrics for West Side Story, the music and lyrics for Road Show.) But while revivals of West Side Story often receive rave reviews, including the recent one at Signature, Road Show has always been a harder sell. In fact, the musical’s journey, which included a lawsuit, title changes, and a total overhaul, resembles in many ways the story it tells of two brothers who criss cross the country in search of success but instead meet with disappointment.
Yet for true Sondheim fans, Road Show should not be missed. And Signature’s production, which benefits from substantive changes made during the musical’s run at the Chicago Shakespeare Festival, features an enthusiastic and talented cast, smart direction, creative staging, appealing period perfect costumes, and musical accompaniment evocative of the early 1900s. Songs are quintessential Sondheim, with clever, fast-paced lyrics that compliment the action and move the story along.
Noah Racey and Cast
Road Show is the fictional story of Addison Mizner and his brother, Wilson. Following the death of their father, their mother encourages them to go out and seek their fortune. They begin that quest in Alaska, hoping to strike it rich during the gold rush. They do find gold but Wilson, a compulsive gambler who has a talent for manipulating people, loses their claim in a poker game. Addison leaves in disgust and ends up in New York. He shows promise as an architect, and lands his first client, a rich widow, who wants him to design a pool house. Before he can do that, however, Wilson shows up, seduces the widow, marries her, and fritters away her fortune on boxing matches and horse races.
Matthew Schleich, Josh Lamon and Noah Racey
After their mother dies, Addison travels to Florida lured by the state’s land boom. Soon, he’s building mansions for the wealthy in Palm Beach. He also takes a lover, Hollis Bessemer, the son of a wealthy industrialist who has been cut off by his father. Hollis’ dream is to create an artists’ colony, but that plan is put on hold while the two enjoy each other and their new found wealth. When Wilson shows up, once again down on his luck, he comes up with a scheme to build a new city, Boca Raton. Once Hollis is convinced, Addison agrees, but Wilson’s plan is soon revealed as a scam. Addison loses everything – his wealth, his lover, and his reputation. The two brothers end up where they began, penniless and alone.
Josh Lamon and Noah Racey
Without two strong leads, the story would fall flat. Fortunately, casting here is inspired. As Addison, Josh Lamon is the larger stage presence but he’s putty in his brother’s hands. Lamon’s body language and facial expressions speak volumes, showing the conflict that he suffers whenever he must weigh the love he feels for his brother against doing what’s right. Noah Racey’s Wilson is the charming rogue, able to win over most everyone he meets. Yet when Racey flashes that Cheshire cat grin, we know there’s malice behind those good looks.
Each member of the supporting cast assumes more than one role. Transformations are skillfully managed and each character appears distinct. A large map of the U.S. serves as a backdrop while small lights pinpoint the brothers’ travels. Scenery while minimal, works well, creating the right atmosphere without distracting from the action.
Road Show isn’t Sondheim’s best. But it is Sondheim and true fans will find much to discuss after this road show.
Photos by Margot Schulman Opening: Noah Racey, Josh Lamon, and Sherri L. Edelen
Road Show Signature Theatre 4200 Campbell Avenue Arlington, Virginia Directed by Gary Griffin Music Direction by Jon Kalbfleisch With Erin Driscoll, Sherri L. Edelen, Stefan Alexander Kempski, Jason J. Labrador, Josh Lamon, Jake Mahler, Dan Manning, Angela Miller, Noah Race, Matthew Schleich, and Bobby Smith