Costumes are key for Signature Theatre’s ‘Dreamgirls’

Christopher Mueller/Signature Theatre - Nova Y. Payton, left, Shayla Simmons, center, and Crystal Joy are dressed to thrill as the titular singers in “Dreamgirls.” (NOTE: A previous version of this caption misidentified Nova Y. Payton as Kara-Tameika Watkins.)

Whatever you do, don’t use Velcro.

“I avoid Velcro as much as possible,” said Frank Labovitz, costume designer for “Dreamgirls” at Signature Theatre. “There’s so much room for it to go wrong: It can bunch, it can not line up. We hear it when someone is offstage, and we all recognize that sound. I never want the audience to be aware of what’s happening backstage. When an actor comes onstage, it should feel like they’re entering from somewhere.”

(Courtesy of Frank Labovitz) - Frank Labovitz designed the costumes for “Dreamgirls.”

Zippers, he says, are the superior closure. And he would know, because he’s overseeing all the wardrobe changes for the show, of which there are many. The Dreams have 11 sets of matching gowns, to begin with, plus daywear and individual evening looks — about 20 outfits per Dream.

“I’d go as far as to say that there’s no moment in the show, with the exception of moments when everyone is onstage, that there isn’t a change going on backstage,” Labovitz said.

“Dreamgirls” tells the story of a girl group, the Dreams, trying to make it big in the music industry, only to find they might not want all the things they thought they wanted. You’re probably familiar with the “Dreamgirls” aesthetic, either from the Broadway show or the movie starring Beyonce and Jennifer Hudson.

Labovitz has other secrets to getting the quick changes done. To give you an example of “quick,” there’s one that involves all three Dreams changing into new outfits in six seconds. The Dreams wear strapless dresses beneath trapeze dresses. The trapeze dresses have a zipper from neck to hem. The singers step behind a piece of scenery, each Dream’s designated wardrobe person zips off the dresses and the women go back onstage.

Plenty of productions leave that change out, but Labovitz felt he couldn’t cut it. “The idea of not having the change there, especially with the possibility of a surprise, just seemed like a tragic loss,” he said. “It’s exciting to see these changes that we don’t expect, that there isn’t time for, that’s a total transformation.”

During another scene, one Dream is auditioning to perform in a nightclub. She comes in clad in day wear. Over the course of the song, the light focus narrows until there’s just a spotlight on her face. When the light expands again, we’ve flashed forward: She’s gotten the gig and is performing at the club — in an evening gown.

“We get almost a cinematic feel, like a jump cut,” Labovitz said. “Suddenly, she’s wearing something new.”

How does it work? The skirt of the gown becomes a draped top that hooks at the shoulders. While she’s singing during her audition, she pops the skirt at her shoulders. Instantly, she’s in a dress.

“From my point of view, the costumes are characters,” Labovitz said. “We see the transformation of these women partially in the way they present themselves.”

Through Jan. 6 at 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington; www.signature-theatre.org; 703-820-9771.

Good news for Spooky Action

There’s some good news over at Spooky Action Theater in Dupont Circle: The Advisory Neighborhood Commission voted unanimously in support of a variance to allow Spooky Action to continue using the basement auditorium at the Universalist National Memorial Church.

“That’s half the battle,” said Spooky Action Theater Artistic Director Richard Henrich, who now faces Part 2: dealing with legal and technical zoning matters. Spooky Action has addressed the initial problem — complaints by nearby Dupont residents about the noise caused by patrons entering and exiting through the church’s rear door — and Henrich is preparing for a Dec. 11 zoning meeting that he hopes “will provide the zoning commissioners all the information they need to make a positive decision.”

Henrich says he agreed to stop using the rear entrance and have patrons enter through the front door on 16th Street NW, which “is much less likely to disturb anybody.”

On any given weekend, the church can be playing host to community group meetings, music rehearsals, weddings and so on; the initial idea was that those using the downstairs rooms would enter through the back. To accommodate neighbors, Henrich says, Spooky Action and the church are coordinating their schedules to avoid conflicts and share the front entrance.

The black-box space is usually set up for 50 seats during a Spooky Action production; Henrich estimates the average audience size to be 25 to 30 people. Their work, usually with spare sets, is heavy on movement and light on naturalism.

“We try to do things that are intellectually stimulating with . . . something vigorous, fun and on the physical side,” Henrich said.

Spooky Action has used the church as its home base since 2010, when it relocated to the District from Montgomery College in Maryland. “Spooky Action feels that we’re really a better fit with an urban, sophisticated young kind of audience as we find in the Dupont Circle area,” Henrich said.

Spooky Action is operating under a temporary certificate of occupancy. Should a decision not be reached by the end of the year, the theater would need to negotiate an extension to cover the first six months of 2013, as productions are slated to run next spring.

“No one is complaining or opposing our presence,” Henrich said. “They need to decide if a small theater like ours is appropriate in this location. And it’s not a cut-and-dry issue where the law really lays it out. It’s a question of judgment and balancing different issues.

“If they decide they don’t want us here, we’ll look for alternate space,” he added. “Our preference is to stay in the District.”

Theater Alliance replaces ‘Nativity’

Theater Alliance has canceled its annual production of “Black Nativity” because its director, Stephawn Stephens, joined the cast of Signature Theatre’s “Dreamgirls.” In its place will be “Soulful Sessions,” a four-week series of gospel concerts.

Stephens, a member of the Theater Alliance Board of Directors, has directed “Black Nativity” at Theater Alliance for the past three years. The popular show — according to Theater Alliance Artistic Director Colin Hovde, last year’s run was sold out for its final 21 / 2 weeks — was to be held at the Lang Theatre in the Atlas, a significantly larger space than its previous home, the H Street Playhouse.

When Stephens was cast in “Dreamgirls” three months ago, he had to bow out of “Black Nativity.” “It’s a big step forward for him” as an actor, Hovde said, but it meant pulling the plug on “Black Nativity.”

Robert E. Person, another Theater Alliance board member, will host the four “Soulful Sessions,” cabaret-style shows featuring both traditional gospel and seasonal music. “Soulful Sessions” will be held at the H Street Playhouse along with Theater Alliance’s other holiday shows, “The Night Before Christmas” and “Wonderful Life,” a co-production with Hub Theatre.

Because “Black Nativity” has sold well in the past, Hovde said, “it’s definitely going to change the outcome of what we projected for the season” financially, but “I think the offerings that we have for the holiday season are really exciting options.”

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