When costume designer Anne Kennedy first began to work on Over & Over, a brand-new musical based on Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, she felt more than a little overwhelmed. After all, even though the production was being mounted at Signature Theatre, a place Kennedy, the resident costume designer for the DC-area company, calls "home," the project had an impressive pedigree. With a score by John Kander and Fred Ebb (Cabaret, Chicago, and Kiss of the Spider Woman), a book by Joseph Stein (Fiddler on the Roof, Zorba), choreography by Bob Avian (A Chorus Line, Miss Saigon, Sunset Boulevard), and Broadway veterans Bebe Neuwirth and Dorothy Loudon signed on to appear, buzz about a Broadway transfer had built to a steady roar before a single scene had been blocked.
But something Signature managing director Paul Gamble said helped Kennedy shake off the pressure and focus on the task at hand. "You have to remember: This is about us," she recalls him telling her. The words stuck with her. "We do things at Signature in a wonderfully charged way," she says. "To think about it any other way was just too dangerous."
So Kennedy did what she always does when she tackles a new project at Signature: She went to the library and threw herself into her research. "I just pull books that attract me," she says. "Whether I end up using them or not, I try to overstimulate my eyes. And I do a lot of xeroxing." She also created a collage for each character, representing "my initial impressions of how I thought these people should look," she says.
Like Wilder's play, Over & Over centers on the struggles of the nuclear family throughout time. The Antrobus household is comprised of an archetypal mother, a wacky inventor dad, a sort of-sweet, sort of-sinister son and daughter, and Sabina, the saucy French maid.
A variety of other characters--played by Loudon and a host of others--stroll in and out of the family's lives as they journey from the Ice Age to the Great Flood to the War. But though the play covers about 5,000 years of history, Kennedy decided to base the clothes loosely on fashions of the 40s. "For me, the 40s represented a playfulness, an all-Americanness that seemed to make sense for the struggle of this nuclear family," she says, noting that she also mixed in some 50s styles. "There's such a whimsicality about the clothing of that era: polka dots and stripes, funny-shaped hats and wide lapels, big skirts."
For Mrs. Antrobus, the good mother, Kennedy plucked images that embodied innocence: matching shoes, gloves, and jewelry, bows, and crinolines. "Very June Cleaver," she says. Mr. Antrobus, meanwhile, sports a "classic nutty professor" look, with tweedy fabrics, bow ties, elbow patches, and sweater vests.
The children were a bit more complex. For Gladys, the daughter, Kennedy combined the sweetness of Shirley Temple with the naughtiness of Ramona the Pest. Cute-as-pie ringlets, oversized bows, frilly anklets, and candy-striped garb give way to grittier images as the play advances, but one image remains constant throughout: red shoes. "I'm really fond of latching onto symbols in clothing," Kennedy admits, "and I had just finished reading the folk tale The Red Shoes and how red shoes can be a symbol of a woman needing to travel, a symbol of fleeing and wildness. And Gladys has that in her."
Gladys' brother, Henry, is dressed as an innocent schoolboy in Act I, a concept director Eric Schaeffer suggested--complete with short pants, argyle knee socks, a blazer with an emblem on it, and what Kennedy calls a "silly kind of pageboy wig." It's a look meant to fool the audience into thinking he's a prototypical good boy. Then in Act II, Henry appears in a Boy Scout uniform, which he tears off as he taunts the audience for being "nice people." Underneath his hat, his head is shaved and scarred. When he rips off his Boy Scout shirt, the audience is shocked to discover tattoos meant to evoke swastikas. Hardly the Norman Rockwell type he may first have seemed.
Costuming Sabina offered an entirely different challenge. Just a few weeks before the show was set to open, Neuwirth, who had been cast as the sassy maid, left the production. Word on the street was that she lacked the warmth and overt sensuality the role required. (Bubbly Bernadette Peters had played the role in early readings.) Sherie Scott quickly assumed the role. But the two women's body types are altogether different; costume adjustments were made to render the maid outfits "more flattering to Sherie," says Kennedy, although the basic concepts--deep purple velvets, fishnet stockings, and French lace--were kept.
In order to accommodate the last-minute costuming adjustments she knew she'd have to make as the show evolved, Kennedy took care to build flexibility into her designs. Although she had about six times the usual budget at her disposal, she "shopped and borrowed and begged" most of the clothing, she says, because "if I'm investing in having things built and costumes gets cut, that's a lot of money and effort wasted." And because Signature has no costume shop, the pieces she did build were farmed out to a corps of volunteer sewers. "I just handed fabric off and got back wonderful pieces," she says. "I really was wonderfully fortunate to have them."
Kennedy also credits her fellow designers--Lou Stancari (sets) and Howell Binkley (lighting)--with helping to make her costumes look their best onstage. And while she has moments of pride when she watches the actors parade across the stage in her creations (the highly whimsical beauty pageant costumes in Act II are among her favorites), she admits she'd do a few things differently if she had a Broadway budget to play with. "I'd like to have that opportunity," she says in a tone at once hopeful and wistful. If the buzz proves to be more true than fickle, she may have her chance.