If there are any costumes in Dream Lover – the Bobby Darin Musical which shout “look at me”, they’re the bright yellow, intricately feathered and bedazzled Las Vegas showgirl ensembles.
Then, coming in a close second, there are the multicoloured, sequinned swimsuits made for the Splish Splash number, revealed in a flurry of excitement as dancers whip off towels to reveal the skimpy costumes.
But Tim Chappel, the Oscar and Tony-winning designer behind the Dream Lover costumes, says those looks come easiest.
“Big and flashy is a box I’ve been struggling to get out of my whole career,” Chappel says. “I can do that stuff with both hands tied behind somebody else’s back.”
Chappel is best known for his work on both the film and stage versions of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and has alway received plenty of praise for his larger-than-life designs. But apart from a few showy, show-stopping moments, Chappel says the big challenge of Dream Lover is to create costumes that become almost invisible.
In fact, Chappel’s favourite costume in the show is literally one of the least visible. The costume, worn by the female ensemble in a short flashback sequence to 1915, is only shown under very soft, dim lighting.
“The lighting is really driving the storytelling in that scene, so you can’t see the costumes very well,” he says. “But I was very happy because it really did feel like it was 1915. When those women pop out, it definitely takes the audience away from 1973 and back to another period, and that’s very satisfying.”
The biggest task in designing costumes for a musical like Dream Lover, which tracks several decades of the lives of its principle characters, Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee, is to trace the characters’ evolutions alongside the evolution of the fashions of the times they existed in.
Built into that evolution, the costumes in the show follow a colour scheme: the first act moves from autumnal to summer colours, then into spring; the second act opens with bright colours which fade into a tight, neutral colour palette as Bobby’s death approaches.
Chappel says his greatest passion is in creating designs which seamlessly become part of the storytelling of a show.
“The dialogue tells you a lot, but before any of the actors have ever spoken, you judge so much on what they look like in their costumes.”
And unlike the heightened and almost cartoonish world of Priscilla, Dream Lover calls for something a lot more natural.
“Naturalism is the most complex costume design you can do, and this musical is all about naturalism. Of course, in the real world, people randomly turn up in clothes that don’t necessarily tell a story or set a tone. I have to take the cues of what they would be wearing, and then try to build that into a stage image that’s dynamic visually, yet at the same time invisible, looking totally unplanned.”
But the fact that many of the characters are well-known and have their own specific styles builds another element into the design process.
“Every dress that Sandra Dee wears is an homage to something Sandra Dee actually wore at the time, and may have even worn at the event. The costumes that Bobby and Sandra Dee are wearing in the Come September scene are from the film directly.”
“Sandra Dee is such an icon. Everybody thinks of her as the Gidget-y little blonde princess, but when I dug a little deeper, she was actually really stylish and quite sexy, which is the antithesis of her image. She goes through such a dramatic character arc, and it was really fun to play with her going from being 16 on the set of Come September, through to her late 30s.”
There are also plenty of practical concerns when designing these costumes, beyond just bringing a character to life. Chappel works closely with choreographers to work out what range of movement will be required in each costume, and considers how they’ll look as they move.
A costume designer also has to work closely with lighting designers during the technical rehearsal period to ensure the costumes look as intended.
“Lighting can really kill a costume,” Chappel says.
Although he had a great working relationship with lighting designer Paul Jackson, Chappel says there were still tough decisions to be made. The Las Vegas scene, which featured a stage covered in yellow feathers, was initially all lit in yellow. It drowned out the costumes and, after several conversations, the lighting was changed to lilac.
Apart from that one scene, Chappel says the costumes are not the highlight of any part of the show. He hopes that it will be the first of many projects he works on where the costumes support the storytelling in a subtler way.
“There’s nothing better than sitting in an audience and watching the show, and watching people get so swept up in the story, and knowing I’m part of that story. Especially telling them things like what period it is, what time of year it is, what the event is — all of that stuff I help to build into the story.”
Featured image by Brian Geach