Susan Claassen’s traveling show about the late, great Hollywood costume designer Edith Head combines the best features of a one-woman show with the charms of an improvised performance. Her usual assistant, Stuart Moulton, couldn’t make it to Saturday’s performance, but James Blair, who — along with Claassen — designed the show, ably filled in as Head’s prompter and infallible memory bank. Together, they offer a chance not only to hear Head’s wonderful stories delivered with sass but also to achieve a kind of intimacy between performer and audience that is rare even today, in the age of the one-person show.
There are two kinds of questions in A Conversation with Edith Head — those submitted by the night’s particular audience and those suggested by the assistant. Together, they provide more than adequate jumping-off points for the talented Claassen, who inhabits Edith Head to an uncanny degree. While Claassen as Head serves up a fair amount of unsolicited fashion advice to those audience members whose questions she takes, the ribbing never gets too heavy. For every time she asked something like, “Where did you come from tonight? Have you been gardening?” there were at least another two instances in which she observed “That’s lovely; what a good color for you.” The house lights went up and down as Claassen switched the focus from her own performance to the other people in the room, but for the big set pieces, such as a description of how she engineered an effective look for Barbara Stanwyck’s long torso, or how Bette Davis saved her by slipping a too-big top off her shoulders in the famous “bumpy night” scene in All About Eve, Claassen was all business, and held the focus on the story with ease.
A Conversation boasts a beautiful set, adorned with photos, sketches, pieces of fabric, and a half-dozen life-size dressmaker’s dummies, and Claassen moved skillfully among its many images and artifacts, grabbing the right image at just the right moment to move her stories along. Each of the full-size dresses gets its own set piece, with the Bette Davis brown “bumpy night” dress on one side of the stage, and Elizabeth Taylor’s white strapless evening dress from A Place in the Sun on the other. Of course, Head did not dress only women, and Claassen finds several clever ways to get some of her famous leading men into the mix, including a short cameo from a young Elvis Presley.
Despite its openness to the specific questions posed on that particular night, A Conversation with Edith Head nevertheless followed a fairly rigorous structure, which paid off nicely when Claassen moved through the evening’s final sequence, which touched on the making of Sunset Boulevard. This show is a touching valentine to the Golden Era of Hollywood, and it’s rendered all the more so by the intelligence of its subject and Claassen’s bold and confident performance.