Re-creating The Lavish Look Of Ziegfeld

March 31, 1991|By J. Wynn Rousuck

It may be a first.

A musical fails in London -- except for the costumes, which win rave reviews. Operating on the "waste not, want not" principle, a clever group of producers buys the costumes and creates a new show around them.

But the new plot requires extra costumes. So, the producers hire a second designer -- Nanzi Adzima -- to create them.

Working with someone else isn't unusual. Ms. Adzima has done it several times before, particularly for television shows, such as "The Guiding Light" or PBS' "Square One Television." What's unusual is being hired to augment another designer's work.

The show is "Ziegfeld: A Night at the Follies," now on a two-year national tour, stopping at the Mechanic Theatre for four weeks beginning Tuesday.

The designer in whose footsteps -- or more precisely, stitches -- Ms. Adzima has attempted to follow is four-time Tony Award-winner Theoni V. Aldredge.

No doubt it helped that for four years in the early 1970s, immediately after graduating from New York University's School of the Arts, Ms. Adzima served as an assistant to Ms. Aldredge. But primarily, Ms. Adzima says, "Theoni is a really excellent designer, and her clothes were just beautiful, so I didn't think it was difficult to try to aspire to what she had already done."

Her assignment was to design 170 costumes to complement the 140 or so that Ms. Aldredge created for the London production. The combined costume budget came to $1.5 million.

Speaking from her Greenwich Village apartment, Ms. Adzima, 42, explains that the London show, called merely "Ziegfeld," was essentially a biography of the legendary showman. The new show "is a musical revue that has a small plot that involves three girls from different walks of life who want to join the Ziegfeld Follies, and their dreams come true."

Since the three showgirl-wannabees weren't even in the London version, Ms. Adzima designed all of their costumes. This doesn't mean she merely did a lot of mundane dresses and suits. "The girls very rarely appear in street clothes; they only have one actual basic street-clothes costume. Then they have evening gowns and lingerie and specialty numbers," she explains.

She also created costumes for their beaus, as well as for three extra production numbers. But though she tailored her work to Ms. Aldredge's, their costumes are rarely on stage together. "Usually it's all of mine or all of hers," Ms. Adzima says.

"Ziegfeld: A Night at the Follies" takes place in the late 1920s, and Ms. Adzima followed her predecessor's lead in using period fabrics. "You can't really make things look like they existed in the '20s unless you go to the fabrics that they used then -- a lot of cut velvets and lames and satins," she says.

But in at least one case, she reveals, Ms. Aldredge used materials that weren't available in Ziegfeld's day. "There is a set of costumes where the girls depict the planets, and the costumes are very elaborate showgirl costumes, and they are made of Plexiglas and Mylar, and they light up," Ms. Adzima says.

Her greatest challenge involved "three dancing mermaids who have tails that have to come off on stage. That was a major engineering problem."

However, she adds, "A lot of the really, really elaborate problems were in Theoni's costumes, and they were already worked out."

Among her favorite costumes is a dress inspired by Ginger Rogers movies. It's worn by "a farm girl who becomes a sophisticated dancer. [It's] totally iridescent sequins." Another favorite belongs to "a girl who's a telephone operator who becomes a sort of Kewpie doll in a Toyland sequence. She has a silver-lame-and-red-feathers doll dress that always mades me happy when I see it."

The 300-plus costumes are about twice the number in an average musical, Ms. Adzima says. When "Ziegfeld" is in transit, one tractor trailer is required to haul the costumes and accessories, which include 84 pairs of shoes, 44 ostrich plume fans and 75 hats representing everything from ships to the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

And for repair purposes, she says, "We travel with supplies for each costume -- additional beads and feathers." Two full-time wardrobe people are in charge of the costumes; they are assisted by up to a dozen more hired in each city.

Most of the wardrobe personnel serve as dressers, a difficult task not only because of the number of costumes, but their complexity. Besides representing such things as planets and mermaids, many of the costumes "have big cage skirts," Ms. Adzima explains. "When they're backstage they're hung from the pipes of the theater, and then they're lowered so the girls can put them on."

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