Society note: Broadway's favorite playgirl will be spending the autumn in New Jersey. That indefatigable, party-loving, horn-toting madcap Mame Dennis returns to the stage in the Paper Mill Playhouse revival of the 1966 musical Mame, which opened September 8 at the theatre's Millburn, NJ venue.
This is the first major revival of the show (based on Auntie Mame, the best-selling novel by Patrick Dennis and the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee) since 1983, so it is only appropriate that designer David Murin has provided his leading character with trunks full of costumes for her stay in the country. It's a dream project for Murin: "The reason I am a costume designer," he says, "is because of the movie Auntie Mame." He notes that Orry-Kelly's designs for the film were "brilliant." Of course, he adds, "It's a show about clothes."
That's certainly true of this production, for which Murin has designed something like 250 costumes. "We've lost count," he says, adding that he has the full support of director Robert Johanson (Paper Mill's artistic director): "Robert has an extravagant eye. To him, more is more." Thus Murin has created 20 costumes for Mame, including a separate outfit for the curtain call; the character has a different dress for every scene in the show--"full costumes, not pieces." Murin also says that when Christine Ebersole, who plays Mame, first realized how many fast changes were in her future, she began laughing and said, "I've got to get back to the gym!"
Because the action of Mame covers the years 1928-46, Murin's designs pay tribute to many of his design heroes of the 20th century. Topping the list is couturier Paul Poiret, who often drew his ideas from other cultures (a major source for this project was Max Tilke's book Costume Designs and Patterns, which takes a similar approach). In a Poiret-ish touch, Mame, on a honeymoon in Thailand, wears an Asian-influenced orange traveling suit with a coolie hat. However, Murin also drew inspiration from such names as Lanvin, Patou, Madame Vionnet, Coco Chanel, and the eccentric, fabulous Charles James.
Mame is, of course, a lady who has an outfit for every attitude and occasion, so Murin has created a virtual encyclopedia of styles for her to wear. For her first entrance, during a Roaring 20s cocktail party, she appears in a silver-white pajama suit with harem pants and see-through bands on top. The material, Murin says, is "Whiting-Davis, or, as it is now known, Versace chain mail. It's made of real metal and has an effect like quicksilver." To impress her fiance's unreconstructed Southern family, she dons a white organza Dixie belle outfit with scarlet (as in O'Hara) green embroidery. Later, she takes to widowhood in style, appearing in a white, asymmetric suit with cape, hat, and muff; the cape is removed to reveal one nude shoulder. Other items include a black riding outfit; a silver cocoon coat of panne velvet with a lame central panel; a silvery-blue, Chanel-inspired day suit of four-ply crepe, and a Schiaparelli shocking pink outfit in peau de soie for the curtain call. No less extensive is the list of fabrics used in these creations: They range, the designer notes, "from the plainest wool crepe, when she's poor, to silk panne velvet and duchesse satin."
Although Mame's bosom buddy, the bibulous, acid-tongued stage star Vera Charles has fewer costumes, they are no less flamboyant. As Murin notes, "Vera puts all her money on her back." She is first seen at Mame's party in a green flapper dress loaded with fringe; later, after the death of Beau, Mame's husband, she is every inch the tragic diva in black (although the lining of her mourning cape is vividly colored). At the engagement party for Patrick, Mame's nephew, Vera gets a real show-stopper: "It's based on a 40s design by Adrian," says Murin, "and also the famous Schiaparelli jacket done with the artist Christian Berard. The dress is painted with the shape of a woman's body, culminating with her face, looking up, from the right shoulder." For an extra wicked touch, Murin designed the face to be the mirror image of Kelly Bishop, who plays Vera, making it the ideal dress for a self-regarding actress (facing page, bottom right). A blue cape completes the look, along with a hairstyle modeled on Tallulah Bankhead (the wigs are by Butch Leonard).
Of course, one of the show's big design challenges is the production number "The Man in the Moon," in which Mame, bankrupted in the 1929 stock market crash, makes a disastrous stage debut in "a terribly modern operetta" starring Vera. In fact, Vera introduces the number, while a bevy of Moon Maidens dress her in a blue caftan (painted with astrological signs by Martin Izquierdo). A rondel is added to her turban from the previous scene. (The Moon Maidens themselves wear outfits based on a Vionnet design, with China-silk sleeves embroidered with stars and planets. At one point, they line up together, and their sleeves create a picture of the solar system). Mame then makes her fatal appearance as the Woman in the Moon, in a dress inspired by Jean Harlow's Dinner at Eight wear--satin lounging pajamas in ice blue with a big cowl, and a cloche hat with fringe hanging in her face (facing page, bottom left). The overall look of the scene, says Murin, laughing is, "the Radio City version of 'Afternoon of a Faun.' "
Mame and Vera are not the only clotheshorses on stage, however; Murin has given the entire chorus a touch of chic. "Mame would have known the great ladies of New York society," he says, adding that he used the book The Power of Style by Annette Tapert and Diana Edkin to illustrate this point to Johanson. Thus, chorus members playing Mame's party guests are dressed to look like such luminaries as Elsie DeWolfe, Millicent Rogers, Diana Vreeland, and, on the male side, Fred Astaire, Jean Cocteau, and Alexander Woollcott.
There's an equally stylish crowd helping Murin, in addition to the aforementioned Butch Leonard and Martin Izquierdo. Eric Winterling built Mame and Vera's costumes, with Rodney Gordon doing their hats, and all of the "Man in the Moon" millinery. The rest of the millinery fell to second assistant Murell Horton. Brian Mear was the assistant designer. Marilyn Deighton ran the show's costume shop, located in the New York office of Alan Albert Productions; the company also produces the live shows at the Pennsylvania themed venue Hersheypark; Murin designs the Hersheypark shows, along with James Youmans (scenery) and Don Holder (lighting).
Not every costume was built from scratch, of course. "The challenge," he says, "is to make the background characters work equally, using existing clothes," so he raided the costume collections of various resident theatres, including the Long Wharf in New Haven, CT; the McCarter, in Princeton, NJ; and the Seattle Rep. As always, in a production of this size, money is an issue. "These clothes have to be extravagant," the designer says. "On Broadway, they would cost a million dollars-plus. We have a perfectly good budget, but not that much." Still, if, as Mame asserts, life is a banquet, Murin has provided a smorgasbord for styles, both comic and chic for his leading lady and her eccentric entourage.
Mame also features scenery by Michael Anania, lighting by F. Mitchell Dana, and sound by Dan Gerhard. Mame runs through October 24.