Behind the Onstage Transformations of Come From Away’s Cast of Characters

Special Features   Behind the Onstage Transformations of Come From Away’s Cast of Characters How costume designer Toni-Leslie James uses a single piece of clothing to create dozens of characters.
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Rodney Hicks Marc J. Franklin

Broadway’s Come From Away is a production choreographed to within a millimeter of its life. The intricate staging, the movement of the set’s turntable, and the changing identities of the actors leave no room for error. It’s part of the reason why—even with 18 previous Broadway credits—costume designer Toni-Leslie James calls it “the hardest show I’ve ever done.”

“The design entirely depended on how you got from point A to B to C and back,” says James. Costume pieces had to be “hidden onstage, draped over chairs, put on, removed, and handed off easily, and disappear when they were not in use.” James relied on director Christopher Ashley and choreographer Kelly Devine to guide her work—which constantly changed throughout the production’s multiple out-of-town tryouts, the most major alterations occurring between the iterations at Seattle Repertory Theatre and Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.

With such strict limitations comes ingenuity, and James transforms actors from townspeople of Gander, Newfoundland, Canada to passengers of the 38 planes that made their emergency landing there on September 11 using one or two costume pieces max. “I’ve never worked so hard to make actors look like they weren’t wearing costumes,” says James. “It was a challenge.”

Here, the Tony-nominated designer reveals the minute details she used to create full characters for three actors in the new 9/12 musical.

GENO CARR as Oz Fudge, Mr. Michaels, the Rabbi, and Terry

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Geno Carr Marc J. Franklin

“Geno opens the musical as Oz, a police constable in Gander,” says James, who created the character of Oz from the waist up so Carr could easily transition between roles. Oz Fudge isn’t the approximation of a Gander citizen, he is the police constable present on September 11, 2001. Oz’s wire frames in the show are a nod to the glasses the real Oz Fudge wears.

“Annette [Jen Colella’s secondary character] has several comic fantasy moment during the course of the musical, and she envisions Mr. Michaels, the Spanish teacher, as a matador,” James explains. “At first I thought this could be accomplished with only the matador hat, but it didn’t work. The jacket was built by John Kristiansen NY Inc., and we just threw everything on it that would fit for comic effect: beaded trim, hundreds of rhinestones, and fringe.”

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Geno Carr Marc J. Franklin

Among Carr’s other secondary characters is the Rabbi, created by the simple addition of a yarmulke and blazer. His final character? Terry, a Gander townsperson who needed some simple distinguishing from the pack, like a baseball cap. “We realized we needed something on the fly and it was in the bag in the theatre!”

SHARON WHEATLEY as Brenda, Diane, and Crystal

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Sharon Wheatley Marc J. Franklin

“Sharon’s base had to be neutral enough to reflect Gander in the opening, yet transform easily to her main character, Diane, while accommodating numerous secondary characters,” says James. “We chose the simplicity of the black and cream blouse and black pants to make this possible.” While the entire color palette of the show is muted (with the exception of actor Q. Smith’s bright purple sweater), Wheatley is the only actor dressed in a combination of black.

The blazer that turns Wheatley from Gander townsperson Brenda into Diane is Armani, to reflect her independence and maturity as a business woman traveling that day.

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Sharon Wheatley Marc J. Franklin

Just as Bob gets his fishing vest from donated clothing, Diane receives this patchwork sweater. “We bought a bunch of hokey, handmade sweaters and jackets off of Etsy,” says James. “We were trying to find real pieces that were the direct opposite of what the passenger would wear in real life.”

But, when Wheatley changes from Diane to Crystla, the counter girl at the Gander Tim Horton’s, she sheds the blazer and sweater, and throws on an actual Tim Horton’s visor. That one costume piece is enough to create the look of a whole new person.

RODNEY HICKS as Bob, Captain Bristol, and a cardiologist

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Rodney Hicks Marc J. Franklin

Every actor has a “base” costume that James built on throughout the length of the show. Hicks’ base is specifically Bob, which also worked for the opening number, “Welcome to the Rock.” But there was some trial and error. “In La Jolla, I tried to make this more sophisticated by adding a jacket for the opening, but found the staging didn’t support the choice. He couldn’t transform back and forth the way he needed to in the show. We found the plaid shirt over the New York Yankee baseball shirt worked better throughout.”

Hicks also plays Captain Bristol, a pilot as seen through the eyes of Ganderian Annette. “The original Captain Bristol jacket and cap were brown World War II-era items pulled out of the La Jolla [Playhouse] stock,” explains James. “A wonderful audience member sent us real American Airlines captain shoulder bars, which didn’t fit the original jacket, so we changed the jacket and the hat to the real thing.”

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Rodney Hicks Marc J. Franklin

Hicks plays a doctor stranded in Gander in a scene that is another one of Annette’s comic fantasy moments. Annette describes the terrible conditions of the bathroom at the Gander Academy. Doctors staying in the shelter volunteer for cleanup duty—but James kept that fantasy lens on her costume design for the doctors. “Surgical gloves would have had a totally different connotation for a comic moment,” she explains. “The color and choice of the rubber dishwashing gloves was chosen to be ultra-bright and feminine-looking to reflect the comic incongruituy of all these top surgeons showing up to clean the bathrooms at Gander Academy.”

Hicks changes back to Bob, but this time donning a fisherman’s jacket. “All of the passenger luggage was kept on the planes; the passengers only had the clothing on their backs,” says James. The passengers relied on the clothing donations from Ganderians, and James loved the idea of a fishing vest for Bob to show how out of place he felt. “Bob is thoroughly a New York guy; he’s not exactly a fisherman type.”

Due to James’ creativity, a cast of only 12 manages to encapsulate the story of a town flooded with thousands.

Watch Come From Away star Jenn Colella talk her Broadway debut and playing Captain Beverly Bass in the new smash musical:

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Come From Away currently plays the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. Click here to check out available discounts for tickets.

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