NEW YORK (AP) - Deep in the first act of the new Broadway musical "A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder," the actor Jefferson Mays slips offstage dressed as a man. He will return a woman.
Off comes his character's handlebar mustache and helmet. Off comes his fake foam muscular arms. On go a pair of trousers and suspenders. Over that goes a dress adorned with feathers. A fluffy wig is put on his head. Lipstick is added and Mays rushes back onstage.
It's a remarkable transformation- and one that takes only about a minute.
Three people help him pull it off- dressers Julian Andres Arango and Cat Dee and wig and hair supervisor Jenny Pendergraft. Though they won't get a round of applause, they're as vital to the show as the actors.
In the first act alone, Mays goes through 12 costume changes, some with the luxury of several minutes in his dressing room, some so rushed they happen in a special area backstage, and some so sudden they are done in the darkness onstage between scenes.
Each time, the assistant's huddle around Mays, yanking off pants or dresses, putting on the new costume, applying wigs, adjusting shoes and handing him whatever props- glasses or a cane- he needs. Tiny flashlights in their mouths give them a sliver of light in the darkness.
"Aren't they amazing? It's like the top pit crew at the Indianapolis 500," says the Tony Award-winner Mays of his team. "It can be frantic from time to time. It's developing into a sort of ballet."
The musical, with a book and lyrics by Robert L. Freedman, music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak and direction by Darko Tresnjak, tells the tale of a man played by Bryce Pinkham who discovers he's ninth in line to inherit a dukedom. So he decides to eliminate the eight heirs standing in his way.
Mays plays all eight victims- two women and six men- some more than once, from a fop in a top hat and red coat to a silly reverend with awful teeth to a grand madam in a frilly frock.
"Each time one of them dies we all breathe a collective sigh of relief," says Arango, who is always at Mays' side when the actor is offstage. "This is the most complicated show I have ever worked on," he adds, comparing it to his work on the frantic "The Toxic Avenger" off-Broadway. "It's definitely pure adrenaline."
Arango and his team, which can include a fourth dresser as needed, must be ready with every piece of the next costume, check the ones coming off for any damage and, most important, stay placid.
"You must be calm in order to keep him calm," says Arango.
Producers permitted a rare peek at the amazing dance backstage during the show's last dress rehearsal. Mays, who won a Tony for "I Am My Own Wife," would continually rush offstage to find Arango calmly holding his next outfit with outstretched hands.
"Right. Everything in order?" the actor said after one change.
"You look good," Arango answered.
"Good. See you on the other side," Mays replied and went onstage while Arango shot down a flight of stairs, sprinted through an underground corridor and popped back up another flight, ready for the actor a few minutes later.
Arango, wearing a baseball cap, T-shirt and jeans on this night, radiates a sense of intense professionalism. He reminds you of an unusual ninja or Batman's unflappable butler, Alfred, and you get the sense that you could put your life in his hands.
He's thought of everything for Mays, including squirting water from a bottle into the actor's parched mouth between scenes. He gently waves Mays into various positions and folds a few moist towelettes onto his own necklace so the actor can easily grab them and scrape off makeup.
"He's like an actor's whisperer. He does these little hand gestures," says Mays, who somehow remains gracious throughout the show ("Oh, thank you," he says all the time to his dressers) despite the mounting stress and sweat. "I don't take it personally but I feel like an Airedale."
Sometimes even the best intentions go awry, but Mays rolls with the punches. During this performance, a rather large mustache refused to stick to his face- so he swallowed it, to hearty laughs.
To ease the costume changes, the outfits are slipped on like hospital gowns, with the back opening usually snapped shut. Sometimes Mays will layer gloves or pants under other gloves or pants to speed a quick change later.
"Every second is extremely important in this show," says Dee, a veteran dresser on "Hair" and "39 Steps." All the pieces yanked off Mays will be inspected before he wears them again.
"You know, zippers can blow so easily, there's so much stress going into them, so much movement. On and off and on. They wear," says Arango. "I don't think when zippers and snaps were invented, I don't think they had theater and eight-shows-a-week and rehearsal periods in mind."
Mays' second act is much easier with only a few quick-changes, and the dressers help other actors with their transitions. But the show is flirting with the idea of having Mays appear as all his characters during the final curtain call.
Is that even possible? Some eight characters in only a few minutes?
"Anything is possible," Arango answers. And you believe him.
Mark Kennedy can be reached at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits
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