When Louise Pitre, playing the title character in the Goodspeed Musicals’ new production of “Mame,” sings that “this very minute has history in it,” she’s not only celebrating the arrival of her orphaned nephew Patrick but issuing a challenge to the production’s costume designer Gregg Barnes as well.
It’s Barnes’ job to design apparel that accurately reflects the various styles and trends over the 15-20 year time period covered by the musical that range from the last crazy days of Prohibition up through the post war years on New York’s upper east side. In addition, a number of the musical’s scene occur outside New York’s jazz society environs, including detours to a Georgia plantation and an uppity Connecticut suburb, which require their own sets of identifiable designs.
But these are challenges that the affable Barnes has welcomed, since the Goodspeed engagement allows him to revisit the Jerry Herman musical, since he had served as costume designer for a Kennedy Center production several years ago that starred Christine Baranski.
“When you get a chance to do the national tour of a show you designed on Broadway or to do a new production of a show you previously designed, you get to rethink some of the decisions you made before and include some ideas you’ve had since about how you would have done things differently,” he explained.
The new production, which is currently in previews and opens officially on May 9, also allowed Barnes to revisit the character of Mame herself, which in his opinion is “the hardest role in the musical comedy repertory.” Not only is the part vocally demanding, he elaborates, “but Mame is essentially on stage the entire time and when she’s not, she’s in the wings sliding in and out of one intricate costume after another.”
As in all productions for which he designs the costumes, Barnes views the design process as a collaboration between the director, in this production Goodspeed veteran Ray Roderick, the design team, which includes set designer James Youmans and lighting designer Charlie Morrison, as well as the actors themselves. Early in the working process for “Mame,” Barnes was able to spend some time with this production’s leading lady, Louise Pitre, a well-known Canadian actress who gained attention in this country starring in the original Broadway production of “Mamma Mia.” Barnes feels that such discussions also help the performer in his or her own process of fleshing out all of the components of the character.
“Mame” of course tells the story of the madcap New York socialite Mame Dennis who suddenly inherits her young nephew, Patrick, and proceeds to introduce him to the ups and downs of her celebrated lifestyle. The character of Mame herself, Barnes indicates, has 17 costume changes, while he estimates that he has designed over 180 costumes for the entire show. His favorite assignments, he admits, are those shows that have these “Mame”-sized challenges where, he says, “one minute you’re putting on the dog and the next you’re in a manicurist’s salon.” For this production, he found himself designing clothes for a sexy tango in a speak-easy for one scene then creating some outlandish costumes for a 30’s style avant-garde operetta.
He faced similar challenges for the recent Broadway revival of “Follies” which also originated at the Kennedy Center and reopens next month at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles. The Stephen Sondheim-James Goldman musical found him designing a vast array of 70’s-style party clothes for an over 50 crowd, as well as colorful, elaborate costumes that would be at home in a Florenz Ziegfeld or Busby Berkeley production. He also was responsible for the detailed, spectral like black and white creations worn by the ghosts of showgirls past. Barnes has earned an Outer Critics’ Circle Awards nomination for his work on “Follies” and is a good bet for a Tony Award nod on Tuesday morning when the nominations are announced.
For the main character in “Mame,” Barnes took a carefully-considered approach. “In my view,” he explained, “Mame Dennis is a fish out of water. She doesn’t fit in anywhere. She’s ahead of her time. Her outfits stand out from the others around her. But her aplomb inspires her friends, so in subsequent scenes you’ll see how they’d tried to adopt her style, but by then she’s moved on to her next inspiration. I wanted to provide a subtle reminder of her influence wherever she goes.”
Just as he was able to do with Mame’s portrayer, Barnes was also able to sit down in advance with this production’s Vera Charles, the actress Judy Blazer, to discuss her thoughts on her character. He and Blazer had both independently focused on a lyric in the show’s notorious duet, “Bosom Buddies,” that described Vera as a Lady Macbeth. Blazer had envisioned her character in black in a lot of situations, which Barnes thought offered a distinctive contrast to the light and bright clothes that Vera’s pal Mame would typically wear. “We get a bright angel and a dark angel as a result,” Barnes describes, “which helps support a key dynamic to the show’s storytelling.”
Barnes attention to the most minute details of a costume demonstrates his commitment to both the character and assisting the performer’s intepretation. For example, Kirsten Wyatt as Agnes Gooch, sings a prayer to Saint Bridget as she and young Patrick arrive in the big bad city, so Barnes gave her a St. Bridget medal which she wears throughout the show. Later, for her pregnancy scenes, he created two separate smocks, one with big red roosters on the fabric to symbolize her shame as a scarlet woman, and a second adorned with Cinderella coaches, to reflect the rebirth of her self-esteem under Mame’s tutelage.
Growing up in San Diego, Barnes had dreamed of being a teacher and naturally gravitated to the arts and humanities. Majoring in dramatic literature in college, he found that he was equally attracted to theater and style. He didn’t realize he had a gift for the technical side of theater until his senior year of college, when an instructor encouraged him to explore that interest. He later had an opportunity to spend some time with the Emmy-winning costume designer Bob Mackie, who encouraged him to follow his talent, which took him to NYU’s theater program.
Following graduation, he was invited to teach at NYU, fulfilling one of his other dreams, and for a number of years served as the resident costume designer at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Milburn, New Jersey. More recently, he’s embarked on a free lance career, which had previously brought him to Goodspeed Musicals for the workshop productions of “Band Geeks” and “Radio Girl” at Goodspeed-at-Chester and for Goodspeed’s holiday offering of “Jim Henson’s Emmett Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas,” which he indicated was designed mostly in New York. So he regards “Mame” as his first big mainstage opportunity at Goodspeed.
“Mame” has been an interesting show to design, he relates, especially since the show has a very distinct style in the public’s mind. He finds that most people tend to remember the Rosalind Russell motion picture version of the straight play, which seemed to have more of a 50’s style, while the musical covers a broader canvas in order to provide a greater variety of musical numbers and styles. As a result, he explains that he’s “embraced the times and locations of the musical while respecting the material and acknowledging the audiences’ expectations.”
For tickets and additional information, call the Goodspeed Box Office at 860.873.8668 or visit their website at www.goodspeed.org. Performances run through July 1 and are offered on Wednesdays at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. (with select performances at 2 p.m.), Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. (with select performances at 6:30 p.m.).