A Costume Epic  by Jane Hogan

Whatever Theatre ‘s virtues, ease isn’t necessarily one of them. Just ask designer Jan Finnell, who had to costume six actors in period late 1800s clothes for AMAS Musical Theatre’s recent Off-Broadway production of Reunion in New York. Six may not sound like many, but most of the performers had multiple changes, one had as many as thirteen.  Since the actors and two dressers had a mere 5’ between the back wall and curtain, they all had to work - quickly and efficiently -  in a cramped space. And most of that small space was taken up by the much-needed prop table. Finnell solved the actors’ outfit-changing woes by hanging many of the costumes onstage, with the actors quietly making changes off to the side.

     “Reunion”, observes Finnell with a laugh, was not an easy job for me.” On top of the lack of space was the initially too-low budget. When you first read the play, Finnell points out, “It’s easy to think, oh well, its just a few actors in basic costumes with a few pieces added on. But it really isn’t.” She and the producers realized the original budget of $2000 needed to be upped to at least $6000; Finnell estimates the final amount spent was between $7000 and $8000.

      Then two of the actors scheduled to appear in the play left shortly before opening. One of those two actors was replaced by a singer who, at 6’-5”, was considerably taller than his predecessor. Finnell attempted to find clothes for him but within such a limited time frame, it was impossible to do so.

     Enter Mr. Tony, a New York City tailor who works  for theatre a lot, and gets things done quickly. I was limited by that time since I had already dressed most of the show. My palette choices were limited for the new actor because I had to balance out everyone else. The full cat spends so much time together onstage that he had to blend in well and accent what other people were wearing. I ended up shopping him in one day and taking the fabric over to Mr. Tony.”

     Reunion’s color palette was overall a warm one: deep eggplants and rusts, peaches and burgundies, warm grays and blacks. Though there is a “little coolness in there”, Finnell rejected the idea of a cool palette because “for this subject, I thought that a cold palette would be too hard and too distancing. It;s such an emotional period and the event, so poignant.”

     The play, the full title of which is Reunion: A Musical Epic in Miniature, played in the Theatre Row theater on 42nd Street from March to May. It was known as “the other Civil War musical,” a reference to the Jerry zaks-directed Broadway production, The Civil War. Reunion, however, focuses on songs, letters, and other literary sources of the period and examines the conflict from the Northern point of view only as seen through the eyes of  a theatre troupe performing in 1890, 25 years after the end of the War. Interspersed throughout the play are scenes showing the historical acting troupe of Harry Hawk (the actor who, according to the program notes, was onstage at Ford’s Theatre when Lincoln was shot) performing Shakespearean scenes and musical numbers in the style of the day as well as their interpretations of the various literary sources.

     Only a few of the play’s costumes made the transition from Connecticut, where it was originally performed at the Goodspeed Opera House as Battle Cry of Freedom, to New York, and only one of the actors from the original cast performed in both productions. And even that actresses’ costume needed help. “the dress had seen a few shows in the three years since we did the show at Goodspeed,” Finnell explains, “so I had the upper half of the dress  rebuilt.”

     The theatrical-troupe aspect of the play gave Finnell a certain freedom to play with the costumes. The designer had researched the conventions of the day and found that Victorian actors were responsible for providing their own costumes - both modern and period ones. She says, “Since our style was so presentational, we were completely unsubtle with some of the costumes. I went to Dodger Costumes, because they have a lot of stuff from 50 years ago. It has and overstated quality to it and much of the inventory has great trim and lots of embroidery.”

     When the head of the acting troupe appeared onstage to play Henry IV, for instance, he wore an embroidered cape. Really a Beefeater’s costume, Finnel transformed it into a kingly garb. “I thought, why not? A company might pick up something like that and not care about its origins. I threw some jewels on it to jazz it up and found a wonderful old metal crown. Basically, I wanted anything battered.”

     The Union uniforms, with their distinctive navy blue fatigue jackets and sky-blue trousers, came from Costume Rental Corp.; some of the uniform blouses and all the uniform accessories came from Grand Illusions Clothing Co., located in Newark, DE and Gettysburg, PA. The historical Union general George McClellan’s uniform came from North-Hollywood, CA-based Western Costume Co. Among Finnells’ other costume sources were The Costume Collection, Odds Costume Rentals, and Helen Uffner Vintage Clothing.

     Given another opportunity to work on the self-consciously theatrical show, Finnell, whose style shows a strong eye for interesting detail, says that she would like to be “even more realistically eclectic. I’d like to be less accurate  with some of the costumes and more dramatic.”


Movie time


A Civil War Epic In Miniature

Directed by Ron Holgate

Scenic design by Doug Huszti

Costume Design by Jan Finnell

Lighting by Stephen Petrilli

Photo copyright Jan Finnell

For more about Reunion, click here