• Five Questions for Melanie Watnick, Costume Designer of "Sweeney Todd"

    Beth Fhaner
     | Feb 08, 2019
    The Cast of Sweeney Todd

    The cast of Sweeney Todd in costumes designed by Melanie Watnick.

    Sweeney Todd Costumes

    ​​Conlan Ledwith and Jamey Hood in Sweeney Todd.

    Melanie Watnick got started in her profession as a student costumer at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Following graduation from UCSB, Watnick continued her studies at UC​-San Diego, where she obtained a ​master of ​fine ​arts degree in ​costume ​design. After a stint at the Juilliard School as a guest costume designer for The King Stag, Watnick went on to teach costume design at UC​-Irvine for seven years and then worked as a freelance costume designer, where she designed costumes for theatre and dance companies such as SCR, Seattle Repertory Theatre, San Diego Repertory Theatre, Boston Court Pasadena, Kansas City Ballet and Norwegian Cruise Line, among others.

    As a ​costume ​designer and ​professor at Pepperdine University, Watnick develops curriculum and uses her connections in the performance world to cultivate long-term professional relationships for her student-artists. We recently caught-up with the Los Angeles native to ask her a few questions about designing costumes for Stephen Sondheim’s Tony Award-winning musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

    What was your design inspiration for the Sweeney Todd costumes?

    I am a huge fan of this musical and the dark themes it explores. The industrialization of England was not such a pretty thing in reality. There was human suffering, loss, poverty and people were at their wit’s end. I wanted to capture this feeling, but in a fleshy vibrant way versus going dark and Gothic. I looked at a lot of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, paintings as well as still life paintings with rotting fruit and dead game. The use of color and light in these paintings really intrigued me. I relied on them heavily to create a color palette for the show.

    What’s the best part—and the biggest challenges—about working on Victorian-era costumes?

    The best part of working on a Victorian-era costume production is that it is Victorian-era. I love this period, which, to be clear, has several stages within it and can look quite different decade to decade. We set our Sweeney Todd in the 1840s. The hardest part is that we can’t build every costume, so some pieces are shopped. Thank goodness for the people who are interested in historical reenactment clothing—and the cosplayers who take it seriously. They have opened up the options available to buy things pre-made online that can look fairly good with a bit of tweaking and tailoring.  

    What inspired you to delve into a career of costume design? 

    I've been interested in theatre since I was a kid. I used to sing, act and dance but it wasn't my cup of tea entirely—something was sort of missing. Once I got to college, and learned that there was a path in design, I jumped in with both feet. Theatre being a collaborative art form is really what I love and costume design is based in that. From developing a design concept, to working with an actor and draper during a fitting, to the final moment it is seen onstage, it is a joint effort. 

    What do you enjoy most about being a costume designer?

    Fabrics. Finding the perfect fabric and getting to use it to make a garment. Seeing it come to life on an actor and move the way you had hoped. That is when it all comes alive. Knowing again that you succeeded as a team to make that happen is a grand thing. It makes me giddy, honestly. 

    What are some of your favorite productions that you’ve designed costumes for?

    Sweeney Todd, honestly…it is a true pleasure to work with this group. Smokefall at SCR and Hey-Hay, Going To Kansas City and Keep Me Wishing In The Dark, both with Kansas City Ballet.  

    Learn more about Sweeney Todd and buy tickets.

  • An Interview with Composer Deborah Wicks La Puma

    SCR Staff
     | Feb 07, 2019
    Deborah Wicks La Puma

    Deborah Wicks La Puma

    Meet Deborah Wicks La Puma

    Deborah Wicks La Puma is a composer, music director, orchestrator and choral conductor. Her work for adults and children has been seen by audiences around the globe, from Singapore to Australia to the East Room of the White House. Her awards include the Jane Chambers Playwriting Award, the Robert M. Golden Award, a National Endowment for the Arts New American Works Grant, a Helen Hayes Award, two Parents’ Choice Awards, an iParenting Media Award and an LA Ovation Award nomination. Her work has been commissioned and premiered at The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Cornerstone Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, South Coast Repertory, the Alliance Theatre, Boston Court Pasadena, Childsplay, Imagination Stage and Olney Theatre. Wicks La Puma has arranged music for a number of young audiences productions including The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Mo Willems’ Knuffle Bunny, Ken Ludwig’s Tom Sawyer and Joan Cushing’s Junie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business, Miss Nelson is Missing and Petite Rouge. SCR audiences may remember Wicks La Puma’s music in Ella Enchanted, which was produced as a part of its Theatre for Young Audiences series in 2017. The production (with a script adapted by playwright Karen Zacarías) was directed by Casey Stangl, who also directs Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed:The Rock Experience.

    In this interview, composer Deborah Wicks La Puma answers some questions about collaborating with playwright Mo Willems, the music in Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed and what the story says to her.

    South Coast Repertory: How did you get involved in this adaptation of Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed?

    Deborah Wicks La Puma: This is my third project with author and playwright Mo Willems, after first working with him on the musical adaptation of his book Knuffle Bunny. Happily, Mo liked my tunes, so he invited me to write Elephant & Piggie’s We Are in a Play, based on his popular books series. We were then excited about creating a rock show about naked mole-rats, as that seemed fun, silly and right up our alley. Now we are working on our fourth show, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus: The Musical!

    How would you describe the music in Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed?

    The music is a celebration of classic rock—I consider it almost a primer for young audiences who might not be familiar with the sounds of some my favorite artists. With nods to David Bowie, Queen, Heart, Pink Floyd and Jim​i Hendrix, I hope to capture the energy of rock to tell the story of a sweet mole-rat who is a little different.

    As a composer, how do you collaborate with a lyricist? What comes first, the music or the words?

    I have been lucky to work with a number of amazing librettist/book writers in my career and each collaboration is different. But we always begin talking through the story and the characters, and then what the world might “sound” like. Often, we will create a playlist of music for inspiration and use it as a point of reference for energy, tempo or vocal range. Mo has a very strong sense of the characters going into each of these projects—since he has already created a book around them—and usually creates a draft of the lyrics first before I start playing around with them. Sometimes the lyrics are fully formed, and the music just seems to flow out of them. Other times, I will start using only catches of phrases that ring in my ear, and then create a musical structure that we rewrite the lyrics into. My favorite part of the job is not to just set the words onto a series of notes, but to see how I can spin them around using all the transformative power of music to create something new and exciting.

    In addition to writing the music, you also serve as the production’s music director. What do you do in that role?

    As the music director, I teach the songs to the actors, coach them to sing their best and work with them as an ensemble to make everything sound good! I love to work on things like dynamics, clean musical cutoffs and harmonies.

    What do you hope audiences will take away from Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed?

    I hope audiences will enjoy this sweet story told in a sassy way— that being your true self is a rockin’ idea. Be a little different and celebrate by singing out loud—why not?

    Learn more about Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed and buy tickets.

  • Meet the Cast: "Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: The Rock Experience"

    Tania Thompson
     | Feb 04, 2019
    The Cast of Naked Mole Rat

    Melody Butiu, Daniel Bellusci, Gina D'Acciaro, Joel Gelman, Nicole Cowans and Marqell Edward Clayton in ​Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: The Rock Experience.

    Six actors transform into a colony of naked mole-rats in the fun musical Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: The Rock Experience (through Feb. 17, Theatre for Young Audiences), adapted by Mo Willems from his book. He’s the author of other beloved books including Knuffle Bunny and the Elephant and Piggie series. The cast members love the songs, the fun costumes, the cool set that looks like an underground tunnel—and they love bringing this story about acceptance to life.


    Daniel Bellusci
    Character: Wilbur J. Mole Rat Jr.
    SCR credits:
    This season, I was in another young audiences show called Nate the Great and I played Nate, a kid detective! Last season, I was in two shows here—one for young audiences, Ella Enchanted: The Musical (as a prince!) and one called Little Black Shadows, where I played a teenage boy in the American south just before the Civil War.
    What I like to wear:
    My most favorite fashion choices include light-colored Adidas soccer pants, with a button-up shirt with any kind of fun pattern. I love to combine casual with a bit of class!
    My favorite animal:
    Lions! When I was a kid, I thought they were so beautiful and majestic (I still do!).


    Melody Butiu
    Character: Grande
    SCR credits:
    A Christmas Carol, Ivy + Bean: The Musical, Shipwrecked! An Entertainment (where I played a mom, a sea captain, a native girl and an octopus expert!)
    Other things I’ve done include:
    “NCIS: LA,” “Rizzoli & Isles,” “Gotham” and “Modern Family.”
    What I like to wear:
    My fashion choice for rehearsals is usually colorful pants, my pink tennis shoes and a comfy sweater. I like comfortable clothes I can dance and rock out in.
    My favorite animal:
    I didn’t have many pets growing up but, for a brief time, I had a turtle that I named Badger because we found him on a camping trip in Badger Lake in Oregon. I brought him to school for show and tell and even shared custody of him with my friend, Bert.


    Marqell Edward Clayton
    Character: Venti
    SCR credits:
    I’m making my debut here!
    Other things I’ve done include:
    Disneyland and a pre-Broadway national tour of Ain’t Too Proud.
    What I like to wear:
    I love wearing boots with cuffed jeans. I wear this combo everywhere—including to parties, church, work and even on holidays! It’s my #1 g​o-to outfit. It’s often accompanied by various forms of collared shirts. My favorite collared shirt has elephants and giraffes on it and reminds me of a safari!
    My favorite animal:
    I didn’t have pets growing up, well, except for a few fish that the biggest fish in the tank ate. I’ve always loved tigers though; love their size, stripes and subtlety.


    Nicole Cowans
    Character: Tall
    SCR credits:
    I’m over the moon to be making my debut here!
    About me:
    I have an MFA from the University of California, Irvine, and studied lots of theatre elements including acting, singing, clowning, masking and dancing. I’m Afro-Latina and speak English and Spanish.
    What I like to wear:
    My favorite fashion choice is an earth or jewel tone off-the-shoulder shirt, dark or black capris​-cut exercise pants and classic Converse shoes. I like to be comfy and active, but still feel sexy and stylish!
    My favorite animal:
    When I was a kid my favorite animal was the mythological creature called the Phoenix. Why? Because it's magical and can be reborn from its own ashes. It’s still one of my favorites!


    Gina D’Acciaro
    Characters: Weather Mole, Potential Customer, Secret Service Mole
    SCR credits:
    The Light Princess, another young audiences show.
    Other things I’ve done include:
    “Nip/Tuck,” The Sticks, “The Agency” and “The Fur is Gone.”
    What I like to wear:
    Heels and hoop earrings shaped like hearts! If I’m wearing jeans, a fun colorful pair of high heels and my heart hoops make for a very good day!
    My favorite animal: My favorite pet as a kid was my cat named Guido. She was my best friend. She had a crooked tail and her head always tilted to the right. And she was perfect.


    Joel Gelman
    Character: Stark Naked Mole Rat, Grand-Pah
    SCR credits:
    Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and two young audiences shows, The Light Princess and Ella Enchanted: The Musical.
    Other things I’ve done include:
    “Modern Family” and “Henry Danger.”
    What I like to wear:
    I'm most comfortable and confident in jeans and a sweatshirt—and some wicked-cool sneakers!
    My favorite animal: I've always loved the duck-billed platypus because they look like a mythical creature, but they're real!!

    Learn more about Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: The Rock Experience and purchase tickets.

  • Party Play: "Sweeney Todd"

    Beth Fhaner
     | Jan 29, 2019

    Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Stephen Sondheim’s Tony Award-winning masterpiece, launched the new year on the Segerstrom Stage, much to the delight of the First Night audience. Sweeney Todd captivated the attention of theatregoers and never let up, delivering dazzling performances, razor-sharp wit, a live band and extraordinary songs such as “Pretty Women,” “Johanna” and “Not While I’m Around.”

    Along with plenty of laughter, the First Night audience showed their appreciation for this musical thriller with enthusiastic applause and a full, immediate standing ovation. Led by Kent Nicholson’s expert direction, the entire ensemble created a truly memorable evening that transported First Night attendees to the seedy underbelly of Victorian London.

    The buzz was overwhelmingly favorable surrounding both the play and the performances of the talented cast: David St. Louis (Sweeney Todd), Jamey Hood (Mrs. Lovett), Devin Archer (Anthony), Erica Hanrahan-Ball (Beggar Woman), Juliana Hansen (Johanna), Conlan Ledwith (Toby), Robert Mammana (Judge Turpin), Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper (Beadle Bamford), Roland Rusinek (Adolfo Pirelli), Brent Schindele (Jonas Fogg) and Katy Tang (ensemb​le roles).

    First Night attendees and Honorary Producers Sophie and Larry Cripe found Sweeney Todd to be highly entertaining. "We loved the play--it's a tasty treat you can really sink your teeth into. A well-directed, glorious cast with rich voices and a stunning set. It's a don't-miss!" they said.

    Honorary Producers James, Kimberly and Kolby Jacobs greatly enjoyed the performance. "The show was amazing," the Jacobs said. "The combination of Sweeney's dark, tortured soul and Mrs. Lovett's melodramatic style really created a unique and special energy that worked so well! We all loved it!"

    Rick Smetanka, with Corporate Honorary Associate Producer Haskell & White, said, "I'll be sure to skip that shave next time I'm in the barber's chair! The suspense kept us on the edge of our seats and we really loved the characters, despite some of their horrific qualities. The actors and musicians clearly rose to the challenge that Sondheim put forth. Congratulations to SCR and the talented cast of Sweeney Todd!"

    Guests who attended the celebratory soiree, which was co-sponsored by The Westin South Coast Plaza, were welcomed to a stylish, romantic backdrop. Vertical buffets set with ​champagne and wine, along with floral décor ​including ​black magic roses, transformed the Westin’s rooftop Terrace Pavilion into an elegant landscape.

    Partygoers feasted on a menu inspired by the play that featured an assortment of mini pies including meat, chicken and vegetables​ and a mashed potato station, with an array of toppings such as parsley, butter, chives and sour cream​. All of the foot was a hit with the festive crowd.

    In a nod to the musical’s titular character, the evening’s signature cocktail was “The Close Shave”—a delicious drink comprised of Tito’s Handmade Vodka, cranberry juice and a maraschino cherry, garnished with a red-sugar rim.

    For a sweet finish to the evening, guests indulged in a decadent selection of miniature desserts including crème brûlées, tarts, cookies and brownies—all delicious treats that few could resist!

    First Night theatregoers were delighted to have the opportunity to meet and mingle with director Kent Nicholson and the entire cast at the rooftop Terrace Pavilion’s sophisticated setting. All the while, lively conversation and laughter continued to swirl around the worldwide phenomenon known as
    Sweeney Todd, Sondheim’s award-winning musical thriller about the “demon barber,” who plots revenge, one shave at a time.

    Learn more about Sweeney Todd and buy tickets.  

  • "Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed:" A Story of Style (and Substance!)

    Andy Knight
     | Jan 25, 2019

    Naked Mole Rat Logo

    In the underground colony of naked mole-rats, two things are true. Number one: everyone is totally naked (that one should be obvious); and number two: everyone loves to rock. For most naked mole-rats, that’s enough—rocking out clothes-free means rocking out carefree. But not for Wilbur J. Mole Rat Jr. He’s grown tired of the monotony in the tunnel and wants something more. Unfortunately, he’s not quite sure what that something is.

    And then, as if in answer to his daydreams, a hat falls from the sky. And then a shirt. And then a pair of pants, a blazer, a tie! With a full outfit at his feet, Wilbur decides to do something no naked mole-rat has ever done before: Wilbur gets dressed.

    When Wilbur shows off his new outfit to his friends Grande, Venti and Tall, they are shocked, disgusted and, frankly, offended. They’ve said it time and time again: naked mole-rats DON’T WEAR CLOTHES. But Wilbur likes the way he looks, and sees nothing wrong with a tasteful ensemble. And so, against the advice of his friends, Wilbur decides to share his passion for fashion with the colony and open his very own clothing store.

    Wilbur’s store, Hats & More, causes quite a scandal. But the colony’s outrage quickly turns into full-blown panic when more clothes begin to rain from the sky. Amidst all the chaos, Wilbur realizes that his simple decision to get dressed has had serious repercussions. And yet, he isn’t sure what to do next. Will the colony ever accept a not-so-naked mole-rat? Should he just give in and go nude? Or is it, perhaps, best that Wilbur leave the colony altogether?

    Mo Willems

    ​Mo Willems

    Debora Wicks La puma

    ​Deborah Wicks La Puma

    In Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: The Rock Experience—a new musical adapted from the children’s book by Mo Willems—a naked mole-rat who’s just a little bit different than everyone else makes the decision to stop conforming. His friends, happy with the status quo, struggle to understand why—why does Wilbur need to wear clothes? And when he can’t give them a satisfactory answer (or, rather, an answer that they understand), they dig in their heels and try to change him back into the naked mole-rat they always thought he was. But it doesn’t work; it only makes things worse. And so, it becomes clear that asking Wilbur why he needs to wear clothes is, in fact, counterproductive. Perhaps there’s a different question—a rhetorical one—that’s better suited for this situation. And posing that question just might be the key to embracing Wilbur’s decision and to establishing a better, kinder order in the colony.    

    At its core, Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed is about the importance of acceptance. It’s a lesson at the center of many children’s stories, but rarely is it brought to life in such a fun, vibrant way. Author Mo Willems and composer Deborah Wicks La Puma have adapted Willems’ book into a lively musical, with equal parts humor and heart. It’s full of cheeky wordplay (with “naked” in the title, how could it not be?), eccentric characters and raucous original music—music with a distinctive sound that adult audience members might recognize.

    “The music is a celebration of classic rock,” La Puma says. “I consider it almost a primer for young audiences who might not be familiar with the sounds of some of my favorite artists. With nods to David Bowie, Queen, Heart, Pink Floyd and ​Jimi Hendrix, I hope to capture the energy of rock to tell the story of a sweet mole-rat who is a little different.”

    Naked Mole Rat’s energy delighted audiences in the spring of 2018, when the musical premiered at Seattle Children’s Theatre. And now South Coast Repertory is bringing it to the Julianne Argyros Stage (February 1-​17, 2019) in an all-new production.

    Naked Mole Rat Scenic design

    ​Designer Keith Mitchell's Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed scenic design model.

    SCR’s production of Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed is directed by Casey Stangl, who has helmed a number of productions at the theatre (in both the Theatre for Young Audiences series and in SCR’s standard subscription series). Stangl calls the story “simple, sweet and deeply moving” and one that “celebrates life, tolerance and differences.”

    With her vast experience directing productions for young audiences, Stangl knows that creating the world of the play is particularly important to the storytelling. That’s often a tough job, especially in Naked Mole Rat’s case, which is set in a series of underground tunnels. But Stangl and her imaginative design team have embraced the challenge and created something that beautifully marries the naked mole-rats’ natural habitat with a rock venue. The set, designed by Keith Mitchell, has the earth-tone look of an underground colony, but it also evokes the spectacular presence of an amphitheater, specifically the Hollywood Bowl. Jeff Polunas’ sound design plays with acoustics, juxtaposing the contained, area-specific soundscape of the tunnel with the overpowering energy of rock music. And Karyn D. Lawrence’s lighting and Angela Balogh Calin’s costumes add bursts of color to the underground’s naturally muted palette.

    Stangl has also assembled a first-rate cast for the production. Daniel Bellusci, who appeared in Nate the Great earlier this season, returns to SCR in the role of Wilbur J. Mole Rat Jr. Melody Butiu (Grande), Gina D’Acciaro (Secret Service Mole and others) and Joel Gelman (Grand-Pah and others) also return to SCR after appearing in recent productions. Marquell Edward Clayton (Venti) and Nicole Cowans (Tall) make their SCR debuts in Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed.

    Learn more about Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed and buy tickets.