“It will feel very much like a concert, but I like to think of it as more of a theatrical experience,” says Sean Matthew Whiteford, founder and artistic director of the Hudson Valley-based Castaway Players Theatre Company. Its production of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars at the Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck on Friday and Saturday, March 24 and 25 will bring David Bowie’s classic 1972 album to the stage, fleshed out with additional Bowie tunes from the Aladdin Sane era (think “Rebel Rebel” and “Jean Genie”).
The Castaway Players are known for doing shows in the rock genre (The Who’s Tommy, Hair, The Rocky Horror Show), but this production is the first in a concert series for 2017 that will highlight individual artists’ particularly memorable albums. Ziggy Stardust, Bowie’s glam-rock concept album that tells the story of a fictional rock star who acts as a messenger for extraterrestrials, “is one of my favorite albums of all time,” says Whiteford. “I grew up listening to this record. And I don’t think you even have to know that much about Bowie’s catalogue to know what a revolutionary artist he was. He influenced a lot of people.”
Whiteford’s aim to give audiences an immersive experience is helped along by the logistics of the Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck. It’s an intimate space to begin with, he explains, where the audience is close to the performers, and he likes to incorporate the trap doors in the back of the theater so performers can use the aisles and enter unexpectedly through the audience. “I don’t think traditional theater captures that feeling of becoming a part of the show,” he says.
Tickets to Ziggy Stardust cost $25, available in advance at www.centerforperformingarts.org. Sales have been brisk, so purchasing sooner rather than later is suggested, but any remaining tickets may be purchased at the door. (Attendees dressed in Bowie-inspired costume or makeup pay $20.) The show is appropriate for all audiences.
The cast includes a six-piece band with appearances by nearly 30 performers, including R & B recording artist Eric Redd and singer/songwriter JaQuita. In addition to directing, Whiteford will also perform in the show, as will his wife, fashion designer Juda Leah, the Castaway Players’ resident costume designer since 2009.
Leah and Whiteford had known each other for a few years prior to that, but when he brought her in as costume designer on a production of The Rocky Horror Show that year, “it was just kismet,” Leah says. The couple have now been married almost three years, and they collaborate on projects that involve her talents and his.
Leah, a Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) grad and the daughter of local artists Robert Selkowitz and Nancy Winternight, opened a retail shop in the village of Saugerties in 2010, juggling that business and doing her own design work along with costuming the Castaway Players. Last September she and Whiteford relocated to Hudson, where she opened the Juda Leah Atelier. “The main reason for the relocation to Hudson was the need to explore other avenues of my work and not focus so much on the retail,” she says. “I decided I don’t need the storefront; I just need a studio showroom. We found a great apartment that we both fell in love with, where we can both have our own studios, and we love the area, so it all just fell into place.”
Leah will sing and dance in Ziggy as one of a trio of “glam-Bowie groupies” dressed “straight out of Studio 54,” she says. Leah had done a bit of performing all along as she pursued her design degree, but says that if she hadn’t met her husband, she probably would have given up acting by now. “He really got me to open up a lot as a performer, and I find it really thrilling, and so fun; but I lack the passion to pursue it as a career. I feel more comfortable in fashion and costuming. But I still really enjoy it.”
Knowing what a performer goes through onstage helps her design costumes. “Having that experience helps so much, because you’re delving deeper into the character and thinking about what that character really needs as a personality; but there’s also the comfort factor, and the quick-change factor. And it helps in understanding whether the costume needs to be durable, if it’s a dance costume, or if it’s meant to be more of an elaborate showpiece.”
For this production, Leah says, “We didn’t want it to look like we went to the store and got David Bowie costumes. He is such an iconic presence in music and art and fashion, and we felt like we could just infuse all these performers with the vibe of David Bowie instead – take it into more of a theatrical place, which is not so far from what his original concept for the Ziggy album was. He wanted it to be super-theatrical; this was his first foray into performance art, so the costuming needed to be really artistic and creative.”
She and co-designer Anna Hafner – who, like Leah, is also an artist – made a lot of hand-painted garments for the show. “There is also lots of fabric collage, using recycled material scraps, and fiber treatments that are more my sensibility and Anna’s than would be authentically Bowie; but it’s the whole glam-rock vibe of his tours then, the Japanese influence; he had a lot of kimonos and capes with calligraphy on them.”
The makeup for the show plays off that influence. “We’re doing a very Kabuki-inspired makeup,” Leah says, “keeping it pretty true to Bowie transforming himself into an alien with face paint. And that’s also Anna’s gift: doing face art. She takes it beyond face paint or makeup; she really uses the face as a canvas.”
The two have been friends for 20 years, Leah says. “We used to dress up as kids and make crazy costumes, so basically we’ve been doing this for 20 years, and this is the biggest project we’ve done.”
While working on the costumes for the show, Leah was also making custom pieces for her clientele and working on her spring collection. “It definitely has some Ziggy Stardust in there! I’m kind of ‘leaking,’” she jokes. “But why would I want to compartmentalize it? It’s so much more exciting when you can infuse one with the other; you get more ideas that way.”
A one-of-a-kind jacket in the spring collection called “The Night Bloomer” is a good example of this, with enough Ziggy sensibility that her husband asked her if he could use it in the show, she says (the answer is “No”), but also reflective of the aesthetic seen across the spectrum of her design work. A “garden” of collaged fabric flowerlike shapes are applied to the surface of a structured dark wool jacket, evoking a vintage/retro vibe, the silhouette straightforward tailored jacket on top but moving into flounces at the edges of the sleeves and hem, and then a surprising tulle netting addition to the hemline. It’s very feminine, but also edgy.
She does a lot of bridal work in her showroom, which might seem surprising on the face of it, given the sometimes-generic nature of the bridal world and the inventiveness of Juda Leah designs; but her clients are women with a feel for vintage who don’t want to wear “a bride costume,” as Leah puts it. And she actually graduated from FIT with a degree focusing on special occasion, bridal and couture techniques (along with fashion illustration). Finding a niche in bridal at FIT was “kind of an accident, but a happy one,” she says, because of the emphasis in special-occasion wear on the detail work and hand couture stitching that she loves to do.
Leah designs for women of all sizes and ages, catering to each client as an individual. “Everybody has a unique sensibility, and I sort of infuse that with my own style to give them something that they’re not finding out there. And there are no rules; that’s one thing that I really try to support them in. It’s whatever makes you happy.”
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Friday/Saturday, March 24/25, 8 p.m., $25/$20, Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck, 661 Route 308, Rhinebeck; (845) 876-3080, www.centerforperformingarts.org.