Tailoring the '50s for `Cry-Baby'

November 18, 2007|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,sun theater critic

LA JOLLA, Calif. -- This spring, Catherine Zuber picked up her third back-to-back Tony Award for costume design. By any tape measure, that makes her a star in the theater world. But she, nonetheless, was on pins and needles last week, anticipating the opening of her newest project, Cry-Baby.

"I've been a fan of John Waters' for such a long time," she said recently, during an interview in the costume shop at the La Jolla Playhouse. "Back in the 1970s, I couldn't wait for his next film to come out. I felt such a connection to his sense of humor. Although I'm not from Baltimore, I think I've gotten a feel for its sensibility. It's so wonderful to work on a show that's actually set there."

Though the 57-year-old Zuber is based in New York, she has designed costumes for about 30 Center Stage productions since 1985. Her most recent local project was Alice Childress' drama about racial relations and artistic choice, Trouble in Mind, which made its debut in February.

Cry-Baby, which is set in Baltimore in 1952, details the clash between two groups of teens: the clean-cut Squares and the rebellious Drapes. But the show also involves lots of dancing, so Zuber had to design costumes that not only were appropriate for the period and characters, but also were easy to move in.

"That means full, fluffy dresses for the girls and tight pants for the guys," she says. "There's a wonderful look from the 1950s that would have been great for the Drapes. I would have loved to put the girls in tight, slinky skirts, but I had to keep in mind that this is a musical, and that people need to dance."

In addition, Waters dubbed himself "the anti-Grease police" and banned the black leather so prevalent in that other '50s musical about a good girl who falls for a guy from the wrong side of the tracks.

Zuber was chatting in a crammed corner of the costume shop. During her discourse, a white, pillowy fat suit hanging in isolated splendor on a clothes rack rotated slowly in the breeze from a fan.

Down the hall, an assistant carefully teased a wig to its maximum volume. It could have been a scene from that other Waters-inspired musical, Hairspray - except that this 'do was for a dude.

The London-born Zuber studied at the School of Fine Arts in Boston and the Yale School of Drama, and began her career as a photographer. By coincidence, she became friendly with some members of Waters' crowd; at one time, Zuber and her boyfriend shared a loft apartment with George Stole, the brother of the famous Mink, who appears regularly in the director's cult classics.

But after a few years, Zuber exchanged her camera for a sewing machine.

"I always loved to draw and paint and make clothes," she says. "I loved art history and literature and sociology and psychology and fashion. I like to do historical research, and I like being a little bit of a detective. Costume design for me is the wonderful moment when all those worlds come together."


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