Audiences familiar with Arlington’s award-winning Signature Theatre know that size matters, but not necessarily how one would expect. Signature is known for intimate productions that pack creativity and a myriad of talent into shows both new and old. In the past, big classics such as Showboat and Les Misérables have been given re-thought and re-sized productions.
The soulful spectacle Dreamgirls opened at Signature Theatre November 13th, and almost immediately won a week’s extension. Critical valentines aside, the showbiz-centric show is becoming a fast sell-out. In the words of Signature’s Associate Artistic Director, Matthew Gardiner, “Audiences are going crazy. It’s a huge show,” he added.
All those costumes and all that hair! The cast – including principal characters and ensemble – totals 18, according to Gardiner who also directed and choreographed it in Signature’s 250 seat Max Theatre. To find out how they put it all together, Jeff Walker talked with Gardiner and costume designer Frank Labovitz.
DCTS: Matthew, what was the biggest challenge with Dreamgirls?
Matthew Gardiner: Even though I am too young to have seen his original production, Michael Bennett’s staging is fairly iconic to the show and something that’s not easily forgettable. So everybody has their opinions on how Dreamgirls should be done and the way it should look, and how the sets should operate and how the costumes should operate. So certainly the most daunting thing was letting go of trying to live up to Michael Bennett and saying this is how I’m going to tell the story of Dreamgirls. And hopefully people would appreciate my perspective.
A lot of your work as a director at Signature has been with newer works, such as Xanadu and most recently Dying City. Now, here comes a well-known title. That must be a different experience.
MG: I haven’t had many opportunities so far to direct shows that have the kind of following that Dreamgirls does. And when you’re dealing with something that is as beloved as Dreamgirls is, it presents its own challenges. This show is beloved for a reason and I love it for the same reasons and it’s been a very exciting experience to work on something people love and to come to the theatre every night and to see these full houses and people just so excited to see a new production of the show. It’s a different kind of reward, but just as rewarding as doing a new work, just in a different way.
What are the top three things that make Dreamgirls so well loved?
MG: The music, first and foremost. Henry Krieger’s music is everything; it is the life of the show, it’s the soul of the show and people know the score. Many people come and they may not have seen it onstage. They may have seen the movie or they may know the recording or they may have heard Jennifer Hudson or Holliday sing the big song, “And I Am Telling You,” and that’s obviously what draws people to the show. I think this is one of most soulful, emotional scores written for a musical, and it’s a pretty beautiful. That’s number one.
Number two, you have these phenomenal characters. You have Effie White and James Thunder Early and you have Deena Jones – there are so many rich characters to draw from and to focus on with so many stories to tell.
Talk a little about casting Dreamgirls.
MG: One of the things we at Signature try to do is to create a community among the artists living here in DC. We really believe that there’s an incredible pool of artists here. And so how do you build up those artists and how do you showcase them? It’s no secret we selected the show for Nova Payton. She’s just a phenomenal talent. For Eric [Schaeffer, Signature’s artistic director] and myself, it was a no brainer. So certainly Dreamgirls is meant to raise up Nova.
And we spent a lot of time in DC searching for actors to play everything and we are very committed to trying to find the right people locally first and then if we can’t, we go elsewhere. There are three actors in this production that are from New York.
And I think you would be remiss to do a production of Dreamgirls without a certain amount of spectacle – the costumes, the scenery, the lighting. People expect that of a production of Dreamgirls, so Signature has figured out in a smaller, more intimate way how to provide that spectacle to our audiences.
But that spectacle has to be done in a different way given the amount of space you have at Signature.
MG: In a space like Signature, we work in very tight, confined spaces so there’s an entire show happening backstage: ‘how do I get to here and make this costume change and where to stand when they put this wig on.’ It’s quite the show going on backstage. Definitely with a production like this it requires a lot of planning.
Talk about the planning process.
MG: Dreamgirls is so cinematic in the way that it’s told, it’s almost surprising that it took so long for it to be made into a movie. The way the creators structured the show, it’s so cinematic, the way it effortlessly moves from one location to another.
Scenic designer Adam Koch and the lighting designer Chris Lee and I spent many days just sitting in the room deciding how we were going to tell this story. Adam has created this kind of envelope of a set that continually surprises and opens up and unfolds to help tell this story. And then Chris Lee’s lighting is so integral to the set as well. We spent a lot of time sitting down and story boarding it and how we would get from one place to the next so by the time I got into the rehearsal room the entire show had been mapped out. Obviously when the actors are there, it continues to take shape.
I imagine the costumes were part of the storyboard process as well.
MG: Yes, the amount of time I spent with Frank Labovitz deciding what the looks would be was critical. And a lot of resources went into making the show look great and a lot went into making sure it happened correctly the first time.
I had known Frank through friends and he had worked at Signature previously as an assistant. I had a conversation with him and it seemed like a perfect match and it has been. His work has been phenomenal, and a lot of his work was him convincing me that we could do it with the resources we had been given and here’s how we’re going to do it.
Frank, is this the biggest costumed show?
Frank Labovitz: I think it is. Dreamgirls is an enormous show. And right now, there aren’t a lot of shows in the area that really come close in terms of the number of costumes and the sort of central nature of the costumes for this show.
And central to the story are the Dreams themselves?
MG: Yes, we started by talking about the Dreams and really focusing on the four women who play Effie, Deena, Lorrell and Michelle. [These roles are played by Nova Payton, Shayla Simmons, Crystal Joy, and Kara-Tameika-Watkins.]
FL: At any given time there are three Dreams (one leaves the group and another one replaces her). Throughout the show, the Dreams have eleven sets of matching gowns so they have 33 performance gowns. And then individually, they each have a number of other costumes. And Effie has her own track of costumes in Act Two as well.
MG: And then all the hair – every time they’re on stage, they’re in a different wig, almost. So it started with them and then we moved on to the men, then from there you deal with how does the ensemble fit into this world.
Frank, did you have creative inspiration for the Dreams?
FL: Like most people designing Dreamgirls, I started with the Supremes, really looking at what Diana Ross was wearing and what the Supremes were wearing both in the sixties and seventies. There were some fascinating pieces; some of them were pretty awful but there was also some really interesting stuff. I tried to find pieces that both suggest the time period but also were going to be exciting, interesting and flattering to these singers and to a modern audience.
I looked at performance gowns that were worn not just by the Supremes, but by Martha and the Vandellas and a couple of other different groups from that time period.
So Matthew comes to you and says, lets do this big show … but here’s the budget?
FL: I knew that there was not going to be the kind of budget normally associated with a show of this size. I went into the design process knowing it was going to be a challenge to make sure that we had everything working the way it needed to work for this kind of show. I started to source some of the things and find some of the elements, find some of the dresses in the process of designing it so that I knew the design I was presenting to Matt actually would be one that we would be able to accomplish. And I felt confident we could do a production of Dreamgirls that would leave an audience satisfied and excited and about the looks of the production.
Some of it was borrowing things from theaters, some of it was a little bit of thrift store shopping, a lot of vintage shopping both online and at local vintage stores. Then a lot of it was Internet research in terms of where we could get some of the dresses we were looking for. Like some of the sequined gowns we have we ordered things from China and England, and all over to try to find things that when they were all brought together would give us the level of glamour and excitement that Matt and I felt were important to support the look of the Dreams.
Is there a costume piece or ensemble in the show you are particularly proud of?
FL: One of my favorite looks in the entire show came straight off of the rack at Macy’s.
There is a scene in the show where the Dreams are being photographed for Vogue. We custom ordered three dresses for that photo shoot. When the dresses arrived, we realized they needed a lot more work than we thought to get them to look like we wanted. With time running out, I said I would take a look around to see of I could find something that could take the place of those dresses. I was in a Macy’s and I saw a dress from across the store and thought we should give it a try. At that time, we were already in tech rehearsals, so basically that dress went from the rack at Macy’s straight to the stage. The lighting designer did some magic with that scene and the dresses ended up looking stunning.
And with all these performance gowns and other costumes – just for the Dreams – talk about the changes and backstage world that supports them, Frank.
FL: The Dreams – when they are not on stage they are almost definitely back stage changing. In the brief moments when they aren’t seen by the audience, the wardrobe crew is running up to them changing their wigs, their dresses, the shoes and that [backstage choregraphy] had to be part of it from the beginning. There are a couple of times when changes happen so quickly that it almost doesn’t seem possible when you read it.
There’s a change within one of the numbers where the Dreams have six seconds to go from one performance look to a totally different performance look. You have to plan that into the design. We needed to know so much before we got into tech how all this was going to work. We learned we needed an additional wardrobe person, so that each of the Dreams could have someone in those changes who would be focusing on them and helping them get from one look to another. There’s not a spare moment when they aren’t onstage. And with the tight conditions backstage, the wardrobe crew has to be on top of it every second.
Any shouts out to the wardrobe department?
FL: The shop at Signature is a small but very dedicated shop and they have really surpassed themselves. Lauren Cucarola from the costume shop really served in many ways as my assistant too and I can absolutely say the show wouldn’t have happened without her. There was a lot to keep track of and she is really the reason why everything made it to the stage when it needed to.
MG: I think that Frank and I, knowing we were dealing with a smaller cast than normal for a production of Dreamgirls, came up with an interesting concept with the ensemble in creating a palette that they lived in that allowed the principals to really pop off the stage. The ensemble helps create the world that surrounds the principal characters to echo the emotional life that’s going on inside the principal characters. We tried to find a uniform look for them while representing a variety of people. And because it’s Dreamgirls, it was very important that they all dance, so casting involved finding the best dancers who could also fulfill the vocal needs. And they also understudy and cover the principals, so they have a lot they have to do.
And, Frank, now that the show is up and running, what’s the verdict?
FL: I love it. It really has come together.