At Ford’s Theatre, costume designer dresses ‘Dolly!’ with an updated, period flair


Nancy Opel as Dolly Levi in the Ford’s Theatre production of “Hello, Dolly!” (Carol Rosegg)
March 26, 2013

When Wade Laboissonniere, Ford’s Theatre’s costume designer, moved from Rhode Island to New York City he wanted to be a dancer. He’d been dancing since he was 8; the then-just out of high school kid went on to dance on Broadway until his early 30s.

However: “For me as a performer, I always felt like the magic happened in the costume shop,” he said. “As a dancer, one is always told where to go and what to do, in a sense. . . . I wanted to help create shows, and I didn’t necessarily want to be a choreographer or an actor. Being in costumes was a way to help me create shows.

“It was always sort of fascinating to me what people could do with fabric or other craft elements, how they could put something together from what appeared to be just a pile of fabric. To me it was like, how did you do that? It just seemed so incredibly magical to me. . . . They give so much of themselves to bring these clothes alive.”

Laboissonniere is Ford’s MVP, having recently done the costumes for “1776,” “Parade,” “Liberty Smith,” “Sabrina Fair” and “Little Shop of Horrors.” He says he doesn’t miss dancing — well, “I miss the sense of soaring, of being able to fly through the air,” he said. “But that’s about it.”

His latest project for Ford’s has been the upcoming production of “Hello, Dolly!,” in which he’s working to balance paying proper tribute to the show that people remember with creating costumes that won’t make the revival feel like a rerun.


A ‘Hello, Dolly!’ costume sketch. (Wade Laboissonniere)

“The one thing that I like to do as a costume designer is, in a sense, pay homage to what came before,” he said. “Because you have to make the audience feel like they’re seeing what they expect . . . without it being boring.”

Laboissonniere pointed out that director Eric Schaeffer had initially wanted to put Dolly in a white dress for the finale instead of a red one (for the uninitiated, the red dress is to Dolly what the yellow ball gown is to Belle).

After holding a photo shoot in the white dress, Schaeffer changed his mind, and Laboissonniere designed a red dress that’s a mix of fabrics (velvet, satin brocade, iridescent taffeta, lace) and “does have a modern sensibility as well,” Laboissonniere said. “I didn’t want it to look period-
dated.”

Schaeffer’s vision was “to streamline the production,” Laboissonniere said, keeping any given character in only one costume from start to finish, with slight variations only as necessary.

“I think I succeeded in that the audience feels like they’re seeing a lot of clothes, and they’re not actually seeing a change for every number,” Laboissonniere said.

A show like “Dolly” requires a ton of period research, which is fine by Laboissonniere, who loves that stuff. When we spoke, he’d just spent a three-day stint hitting the books in the Library of Congress for another project, a book on menswear from 1900 to 1925.

Another perk of playing dress-up like it’s 1899: “I’m the expert in the room,” he said. “Whereas for a modern show, everyone feels that they know best for what their person wears. There’s a different psychology. People are more willing to listen and let me be the boss.”

Hello, Dolly!

Book by Michael Stewart, music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. Based on “The Matchmaker” by Thornton Wilder. Original production directed and choreographed by Gower Champion. Through May 18 at Ford’s Theatre,

511 Ninth St. NW. 202-347-4833.

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