Kelsey Hunt Dresses the Stars in Ford’s Frothy Revival of ‘Born Yesterday’

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“Born Yesterday is a winner.”

Those are the words of my colleague, David Siegel,  whose review of the gloriously effervescent comedy that just opened at Ford’s Theatre is full of superlatives. “Sparkling,” “shrewd” and “splendid” are just a few of them. (You can read the full review here.)

Of course, it’s hard to go wrong when you have actors like Kimberly Gilbert, Ed Gero, Naomi Jacobson, Todd Scofield, Eric Hissom and Cody Nickel all sharing the same stage.

The cast of Born Yesterday, now playing at Ford's Theatre. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
The cast of Born Yesterday, at Ford’s Theatre. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Nor is it difficult to score big if you’re lucky enough to have a writer like Garson Kanin, whose wit—especially when he takes aim at corruption and pretense—is as penetrating now as it was 72 years ago. And ditto if you have Aaron Posner, whose understanding of character transcends time and place, directing it all at a lively and laugh-filled pace.

Underpinning it all is Kelsey Hunt, a costume designer who understands how to ‘build’ a piece of apparel—‘build’ is the word that designers use because clothing, on stage, is an illusion that must be constructed— and through it, to define the character and the period.

Born Yesterday is set in 1946. It’s right after the war when clothing was a bit more elaborate than it had been a year earlier, when every inch of fabric was needed for making uniforms.

“But it’s still utilitarian,” Hunt explained, adding that the ‘new look’—the revolution in fashion ushered in by Christian Dior—did not arrive until 1947. She’s adamant about staying in the period, and does a lot of research, mainly poring over the pages of Time and other magazines.

Kimberly Gilbert in Born Yesterday. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Kimberly Gilbert in Born Yesterday. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

“A lot of the things we do are almost invisible,” she said. “We operate on a very subtle level so that audiences are not aware of the ways in which we’re evoking key characteristics.”

For example, Billie (the “dumb blond,” played to glorious effect by Kimberly Gilbert)  and Paul (the idealistic young writer for the New Republic, played by Cody Nickell) are clearly meant for each other. They are always dressed in rich colors, yet the audience may not notice.

“We also let the actor choose the outfit that he or she feels good in,” Hunt continued. Billie’s final costume, meant to show her transformation from floozy to fashion-plate, is a case in point.

“We showed Kimberly several dresses—one yellow, with a V-neck, the other rust-colored, with a high neckline and a peplum—and she immediately chose the second. She loved it the minute she tried it on. So we knew it was the one.”

On the other hand, dressing Naomi Jacobson—who is petite—as the formidable Mrs. Hedges, the high society senator’s wife, required some drastic changes.

“I found a vintage suit—navy blue with a matching hat—with a label identifying it as a ‘Lilli Ann’ original. It was perfectly in the period. But Naomi disappeared inside it.” Hunt and her team rebuilt it completely. They made the shoulders broader and the jacket curvier, so that Jacobson, who plays three roles in the play, would appear more powerful and intimidating.

The trouble with ‘vintage’ outfits, according to Hunt, is that while they are authentic—as this one was—they are nevertheless wrong. “So we jump off the original,” she explained. “We enlarge the buttons, add fancy handkerchiefs, or put opposites together.”

Ed Gero’s outfits are a wonderful example of storytelling through costume design. Gero’s character is Harry Brock, the loud-mouthed ‘sugar daddy’ who’s plucked Billie out of the chorus line. (He’s also plucked her out of the arms of a good-for-nothing saxophone player).

Harry, in Hunt’s lingo, is ‘the beast.’ He’s the villain, a guy who’s rude, crude and incredibly rich, so lewd and louche that he’s over the top. Gero is magnificent in this role. He reeks of success. And the audience can see at once that he’s a master of the art of the deal.

Todd Scofield, Naomi Jacobson, and Edward Gero in Born Yesterday. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Todd Scofield, Naomi Jacobson, and Edward Gero in Born Yesterday. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

“I put him in a gray pin-striped suit,” said Hunt. “He looks elegant at first. But then he takes it off, one piece at a time. The jacket, the tie, the shirt. And you can see him getting shlumpier as each item is removed.”

Clearly, clothes make the man. And unmake him too. Slowly, in Hunt’s costume change, he becomes an ugly imposter. He peels off his socks, smells them, and then drops them on the floor.

He leaves, then returns. “Now he’s dressed more casually,” she explained. “We see him in a beautiful velvet robe. But there’s a grungy undershirt peeking out from behind the lapels.”

It’s a study in contrast, and it marks him as the hoodlum he really is.

Of course, it’s no coincidence that Gero, in the guise of Harry, bears a resemblance to our current leader. I asked Hunt why they chose to leave out the comb-over hair. She laughed. “We decided there was no need to make the connection visually. This is an unmistakably greedy, illiterate guy who thinks he can buy power.”

Kimberly Gilbert as Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday, now playing at Ford's Theatre. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Kimberly Gilbert as Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday, now playing at Ford’s Theatre. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

“One of the challenges of having Aaron as a director is his fondness for deciding some things way in advance of others,” she added. (The two have worked together on many previous shows, including the Helen Hayes Award-winning production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Ford’s, The Winter’s Tale at Folger and Life Sucks—his adaptation of Chekhov—at Theatre J).

In this case, Aaron and the set designer—Daniel Lee Conway—had already settled on a palette of neutral colors for the hotel suite where all the action takes place. The walls are gold and white,  whispering opulence against the austerity of black and white marble floors.

“That meant that all the color had to come from the costumes,” Hunt said. Except for Paul—who is meant to look professorial in a plaid jacket—all the men are attired in rich shades of navy or gray, while the women, outside of Billie, are in navy or black and white.

Billie, being the star, gets the most brilliant outfits. As the play opens, she is in full “dumb blonde” regalia as she sails onto the stage, dressed to the nines in glamorous green. Next comes a bawdy red, with which she flummoxes the senator’s wife, whose disdain is palpable.

Finally, thinking the guests have gone, Billie prances down the marble stairway in a sheer negligee that reveals the sexiest underwear this side of a bordello.

This outfit, clearly, is the designer’s favorite. “I created it so that she could decide when to open and close the robe. That way she can do a bit of story-telling while she tries to seduce Paul.”  

When Act II begins, it’s two months later, and a lot has changed. Billie is now dressed in a white cotton blouse and navy balloon pants, so demure she looks like a debutante at Vassar or Smith. And yes, she is wearing glasses. (Just like Paul, who is looking similarly prim in a crisp white shirt and tie.)

Cody Nickell, Kimberly Gilbert, and Edward Gero in Born Yesterday. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Cody Nickell, Kimberly Gilbert, and Edward Gero in Born Yesterday. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

This is precision dress-making, with a lot of understanding of what makes drama work. So I asked Kelsey Hunt how she got into costume work.

“By mistake,” she said. “I was at high school in Charlotte, NC, and I wanted to take a typing course. But I ended up in a senior acting class instead.”

She was totally out of her element, but she knew how to sew. She had learned from her mother, who taught sewing to young people every summer. (During the rest of the year she taught ‘basic life skills’ to prison inmates and other adults as part of a government-sponsored program.)

“As a result, I spent that entire semester of high school making costumes. And I discovered that I loved it,” Hunt said. She went on to the University of North Carolina at Greensborough, where she majored in costume design.

After college, she free-lanced in New York, then went back to Greensborough, where she became resident designer at the Triad Stage for seven years. She and her husband, Andrew Barker, met at Triad, where he was both an artistic associate and the dramaturg.   

Together they moved to Washington, D.C., and both enrolled in graduate school at the University of Maryland in College Park. He is now an academic—a scholar in dramatic arts—as well as the performing arts librarian at UMD.

Now 36, Hunt is clearly on a roll, with a list of theatrical creations as glittery as some of the outfits she’s designed.

Born Yesterday is her best to date. It’s a must-see.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.

Born Yesterday plays through October 21, 2018, at Ford’s Theatre – 511 10th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (888) 616-0270, or purchase them online.

Note: This production is recommended for ages 12 and older.

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