The importance of being well-dressed | March 29, 2013 | Mountain View Voice | Mountain View Online |

Mountain View Voice

Arts & Entertainment - March 29, 2013

The importance of being well-dressed

Mod '60s costumes add zip to a new musical take on Oscar Wilde

by Rebecca Wallace

TheatreWorks artistic director Robert Kelley huddles with designers in the costume shop, peering at purple swatches of wool and wool blend. The air is heavy with indecision. Costume Director Jill Bowers makes a grim pronouncement: "We have been completely unable to find a lilac plaid."

Alas, it seems that young Algernon will not wear the daring patterned jacket that the designers envisioned for Act One. They have scoured the Internet, even sent for fabric from New York, but the perfect lilac plaid remains elusive.

Yet the show must go on, so the designers will sew the jacket with a solid fabric. Kelley selects a linen.

These are the sartorial challenges you face when moving a 19th-century theater classic into the swinging '60s. Because in London's mod culture, it was all about the clothes.

The show at hand is a world premiere: a new musical version of the beloved Oscar Wilde manners comedy "The Importance of Being Earnest," which is now being set in 1965. Adapted from the play and using much of its original language — because this is Wilde, after all — the musical is called simply "Being Earnest." It comes from the pens of composers Jay Gruska and Paul Gordon, who are in town for rehearsals and continuing to revise lyrics and notes as the April 6 opening nears.

"Being Earnest" bowed on the TheatreWorks stage last summer as a staged reading in the annual New Works Festival. Several of the cast members are returning, and Gordon is a familiar, and popular, presence around here as well. He wrote the music, lyrics and book for the musical "Emma," one of TheatreWorks' biggest hits in recent years. And he co-wrote "Daddy Long Legs," which played at the company in 2010, and the Broadway musical "Jane Eyre."

Gruska is an Emmy-nominated songwriter who has penned pieces for Bette Midler, Michael Jackson and Chicago.

With a show set in the fashion-obsessed mod world, it's crucial to have veterans in the costume shop as well. Fumiko Bielefeldt is the costume designer for "Being Earnest." She has done shows for TheatreWorks since the mid-'80s, serving as resident costume designer and patterning, cutting and sewing. A graduate of Waseda University in Tokyo, she has studied costume design at Stanford and designed more than 50 TheatreWorks shows, including "Emma," "A Civil War Christmas" and "Caroline, Or Change."

Overall, there are about six people working to make Bielefeldt's designs a reality. On this afternoon, several are busy in the huge Redwood Shores costume shop, running sewing machines and peering at fabric. On the walls hang giant paintings of corsets from TheatreWorks' 2005 production of the Lynn Nottage play "Intimate Apparel." The theater company moved its shop, offices and rehearsal space here from Menlo Park last fall, and everyone seems grateful for the larger floor area.

When Bielefeldt comes in to design a show for TheatreWorks, she starts with the basics: reading the script, meeting with the director to hear his or her vision. Then she hits the books and researches the period before making detailed, colorful costume drawings. Bowers, as the troupe's staff costume director, jumps in on logistics.

"Fumiko does the drawings a couple months out. I start estimating the labor and the price, and start sourcing the really weird things," Bowers says. Weird things like lilac plaids. Sometimes TheatreWorks will borrow costumes from other companies, like San Jose Repertory Theatre, and vice versa. Actors at TheatreWorks often come in from out of town to do shows, so that makes fittings more difficult to schedule.

"Essentially what we do is couture fashion on a deadline and on a budget," Bowers says with a grin.

To make an unavoidable pun, costume design is woven deeply into the fabric of any show. The designs and colors set moods, conjure up time periods, give insight into characters. Actors can immerse themselves more in a role by wearing a particular pair of tottering heels or a crisply starched shirt that reminds them at every step or breath who they are. (And corsets are great for breath control in singing.)

In "Earnest," one particular dress has been a factor in changing the whole script.

While talking about her costume research, Bielefeldt spreads out several of her sources on a table: glossy fashion books full of the creations of Yves Saint Laurent, Andre Courreges, Pierre Cardin.

She opens to a page where three models slouch elegantly, all wearing one of the most iconic looks of the time: Saint Laurent's 1965 "Mondrian dress." Made to look like a painting by the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, the dress features primary-color blocks with black bordering, set on a white background. It's a short, straight number with no sleeves and lots of boldness.

It's also one of the reasons for a script change. The musical was originally set in 1964, but this dress is from the fall 1965 collection. Kelley wanted it in the show for its unmistakable mid-'60s-ness, and as Bielefeldt did her research she learned that the mod fashions weren't really in full swing until '65. So the script got moved a year later, and Bielefeldt got to keep her Mondrian dress. (She just updated it a tiny bit with a slightly more defined waist. Actresses of any period don't look their best in super-boxy dresses.)

Bielefeldt is fascinated by the dynamic mid-'60s, when women's clothes in particular were transforming from the staid '50s styles at a pace that dizzied many older women. She flips through a book of Courreges modern miniskirts with dramatic stripes.

"He's a signature of that period, breaking away from the '50s," she says. "They went from cinched-waist dresses to almost no waistline, to almost a sheath or a shift. That's happening in the late '50s and bursting into mod fashion."

Pantyhose was invented in 1959, which meant that skirts could soar sky-high without girls worrying about revealing their garters, Bielefeldt points out. And every young woman soon wanted to be as slim and big-eyed as Jean Shrimpton or Twiggy.

"Earnest" clearly illustrates the generation gap between the miniskirts and the cardigans. It's the story of two wealthy young Englishmen who both pose as men named Ernest, for reasons having to do with seeking frivolity and love. Jack falls for the fashion model Gwendolen, and his chum Algernon woos the naive country girl Cecily. Representing the older generation are stuffy Lady Bracknell (Gwendolen's mother and Algernon's aunt), who disapproves of any match she deems unsuitable; and the governess Miss Prism. Mistaken identity, more than one proposal and many cucumber sandwiches ensue.

The generation gap is reflected in the mannequins standing behind Bielefeldt. Side by side are: a zippy red and white, very short striped number for Gwendolen; a tamer but still short yellow sundress for little Cecily; and a longish cream coat for Lady Bracknell. Bielefeldt based the coat on a 1950 Dior design, and its nipped-in waist is definitely from an earlier era. Nearby, a costume design for Miss Prism shows her with demure eyeglasses on a chain.

Gwendolen's striped dress gives a clue to the hours of work done by the costumers. Since the perfect fabric couldn't be found, the stripes were fashioned from small pieces of fabric and sewn on by hand. Designers are also painting stripes on Gwendolen's boots.

"This is a period with specific textures and textiles," Bielefeldt says. "Often they're hard to find, so we have to re-create them."

Meanwhile, the men get to have a little fun, too. There's Algernon's famous purple creation, of course, and Bielefeldt holds up a bright blue fabric used in a jacket for Jack. "Jack is a country squire who takes 'Ernest' as an alias. We decided he could be a little bold," she says. In this case, "bold" means "double-breasted."

The toughest gig goes to actor Brian Herndon, who plays lots of roles, including a man of the cloth and a manservant. That means lots of quick changes. Herndon will have two dressers to help him out (and in).

Bielefeldt lingers on one photo. It depicts Pierre Cardin's Space Age styles, with the models boasting hats like riding helmets. The costumers plan to make a similar hat for Gwendolen, out of felt.

"Audrey Hepburn had one of those," Bielefeldt says, recalling the 1966 flick "How to Steal a Million," in which La Hepburn makes her entrance in a white Space Age hat, lots of eyeliner and a convertible. "I wish Gwendolen could come on in a car," she adds wistfully.

Over in the rehearsal hall, costumes are playing an important role as well. For example, there's the song "A Man Dressed in Tweed," in which ingenue actress Riley Krull, playing Cecily, tells Euan Morton (Algernon) that she just doesn't trust a man who wears tweed.

The production's veteran musical director, William Liberatore, mans the piano while composers Gruska and Gordon watch. Also seated behind the rehearsal table is TheatreWorks founder Kelley, who is directing the production.

The atmosphere is friendly, with artistic give-and-take seemingly encouraged. Morton wonders aloud why the song doesn't allow soprano Krull to sing more in her head voice. Gordon says he likes the lower register. "That's more reminiscent of the sound of the era."

Morton's parts have plenty of heights, with his sprightly tenor leaping through such Wilde-y lines as, "I am a man with no enemies at all. That's why I'm disliked by my friends," and, "A man can be happy with any woman as long as he does not love her."

Then some lyrics are a little ahead of Wilde's time, like, "There's another Georgy Girl on another Ruby Tuesday." They go perfectly with a wall display that has company dramaturg Vickie Rozell's fingerprints all over it: Beatles photos, a '60s TIME Magazine cover, period advertisements, a photo of Carnaby Street.

Morton, who originally hails from Scotland, joins up with New Zealand actor Hayden Tee, who plays Jack, to rehearse several songs. They soon hit a snag that has nothing to do with the smooth blend of their voices.

In one number of bouncy repartee between the two characters, Tee sings to Morton, "Your conduct is an outrage and your tie less than ideal." But then about 15 pages later in the scene he has the line, "You look good in a turtleneck sweater." Insert sound of record-player needle scratch. Man cannot wear tie and turtleneck both.

Kelley looks thoughtful. He likes the second line a lot. "Paul, it's funny, but we can't put either of them in a turtleneck sweater."

Rehearsal stops. Kelley and Gordon get up and examine the costume drawings on the wall. Should they change the tie line? Or the costume? They wonder if "your curls less than ideal" would work. "Would they say 'pants'?" Gordon asks. "Your pants less than ideal?" Kelley goes over to the costume shop to consult with Bielefeldt.

Soon, a conclusion is reached. Jack will sing "your hair less than ideal." Algernon will wear the turtleneck sweater. Order restored.

"We realized we had an irreconcilable situation," Kelley jokes later about the wardrobe malfunction. But all's well that ends well. "This era is fun."

Wig designer Sharon Ridge is one of the people who's gotten in on the fun. She actually owned a Mondrian dress in the 1960s, and brought in a photo of herself wearing it, Kelley says.

Still, he notes, it has been a challenging era to re-create in dress, with its elusive fabrics. When theater designers do find the perfect material, they have to snap it up.

Kelley laughs as he imagines the clerks in a fabric store somewhere, thrilled that someone is finally buying some wild pattern that's been hanging around the shop for decades. "We've had this for 40 years!"

What: "Being Earnest," a new musical version of Oscar Wilde's classic play "The Importance of Being Earnest," by composer/lyricist Paul Gordon and songwriter Jay Gruska, opens at TheatreWorks.

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St.

When: The show previews April 3-5 and then runs April 6-28, with performances Tuesday through Sunday.

Cost: Tickets are $23-$73.

Info: Go to or call 650-463-1960.