LCT Has Sewn a Lovely Intimate Apparel, But It Might Not Have Been Made to Fit Me

LCT Has Sewn a Lovely Intimate Apparel, But It Might Not Have Been Made to Fit Me

In the exciting collaborative action between Lincoln Center Theater and the Metropolitan Opera, Lynn Nottage’s 2003 play, Intimate Apparel, finds its passionate way to the stage, but not in its original spoken language form. This is a new operatic adaptation of the play, retelling the tender, intimate, longing story of a Black seamstress dreaming of love and marriage in New York City circa 1905. It’s exhilarating, in a way, to hear the emotionally charged plot thread its way through the well cut space, and even though I never saw the original play that this opera is based, the new formulation keeps its tight eye on the ordinary and the need, finding hope and the sweet aroma of engagement all wrapped up and revolving to the keys and melodies of two pianos, played beautifully by Nathaniel LaNasa and Brent Funderburk conducted by the talented Steven Osgood (Opera Philadelphia’s Breaking the Waves).

Kearstin Piper Brown and Naomi Louisa O’Connell in Intimate Apparel at Lincoln Center. Photo by T Charles Erickson.

In this new perfectly sung opera, Ricky Ian Gordon’s (The House Without a Christmas Tree) music registers, not just because of the majestic voices bringing it to life by this impressive cast, but through the sound and simplicity of the arrangements and constructions presenting here. The piece unpacks itself lovingly, but it is the voices that find the flavor and its emotional core, even to this particular audience member who is not one of opera’s biggest of fans. I always when listening to opera have a hard time tuning in my sympathetic self to the sounds of that particular voice that is clearly, and most impressively being portrayed here. I can honor it, but it never inserts itself like a Rachel Bay Jones Broadway voice, full of roughness and edge. But that is just me, and has no reflection on the quality of the cut.

Kearstin Piper Brown (Atlanta Symphony’s Aida) as the central force, Esther, leads the cast forward through its romantic edged paces. Esther eeks out her bare bones existence in a Lower Manhattan boarding house, run by a sympathetic landlady, beautifully embodied by Adrienne Danrich (HERE’s Looking at You). Esther works hard, toiling away alone sewing fantastically created garments, designed most exquisitely by the Tony-winning costumer, Catherine Zuber (Broadway’s Moulin Rouge). Magic in fabric is created here for a wide range of women who inhabit her sorted world, made to make them feel more sensual and assured in themselves and their bodies. This is not something that fits into Esther’s own sense of self, but for her customers, who include the unhappily married wealthy married woman, Mrs. Van Buren, fantastically portrayed by Naomi Louisa O’Connell (West End’s Master Class), and the dream-filled prostitute Mayme, dynamically enlivened by the wonderful Krysty Swann (Met Opera’s Elektra), these garments bring out the best in them. And maybe a little something else too.

Kearstin Piper Brown and Arnold Livingston Geis in Intimate Apparel at Lincoln Center. Photo by T Charles Erickson.

The cast of Ricky Ian Gordon and Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel at Lincoln Center. Photo by T Charles Erickson.

But in an attempt to find love and engagement, the illiterate and somewhat naive Esther, with the help of Mrs. Van Buren’s writing skills and Mayme’s sense of adventure, finds connection and romance with the handsome and charming (or so he seems) laborer, George Armstrong, strongly embodied by the captivating Justin Austin (Met’s Dead Man Walking) who is living and working equally hard on the far away Panama Canal. The letters are filled with wonderful excitement and romance from a far away enchanted locale, but like the fabricated fantasies that Esther creates with her conspirators, the letters bring forth a forgery and false sense of attachment, that, in essence, are destined to bring about an ending like every catfish story that we have ever seen played out before us. Naturally the correspondence leads to their meeting, and their eventual marriage, but more importantly, we watch and wait for the workman’s shoe to drop, which it does eventually, leading to betrayal and anger, all to the sounds of hypnotic operatic voices filling our senses with passion, loss, and pain.

Nottage (Clyde’s; MJ The Musical) finds an elegance in her poetic transfer of text to libretto, and director Bartlett Sher (LCT’s My Fair Lady) matches it with flourishes of simplicity that works wonders on the idea of intent and idealism. Sewing it all together with the clarity of sound, the piece easily fills the small Lincoln Center Theater with the “sweet smell of death” trimmed with emotional magic, to a degree. It stitches together the complicated ideals of race, gender, and class, all inside the luxuriant sounds of Gordon’s score played out with cunning sparsity on Michael Yeargan’s (LCT’s My Fair Lady) impressively symbolic set, with fine lighting by Jennifer Tipton (Broadway’s To Kill a Mockingbird) , sound by Marc Salzberg (LCT’s Oslo), and strong minded projections of sepia-toned “unidentified Negros, ca. 1905,” by 59 Productions (LCT’s JUNK). But I’m not quite sure it ever truly entered my soul, as maybe the play might have.

Brown and Swann sing with grace and power, as does the impressive Austin as the wayward and deceitful husband, but the most touching and engaging relationship is the one that barely gets to speak its name until the very end, even though the sparks fly almost immediately for us all to see. Lovingly portrayed by Arnold Livingston Geis (Long Beach Opera’s Candide), Mr. Marks, the quiet and caring Jewish fabric salesman, is the obvious unspoken love interest of the piece, with societal pressure and religion keeping it under lock and key. That is until that songbird can’t be caged any longer, and Esther must sing, almost surprisingly, “I love someone, didn’t know until now.” One can almost hear the crowd sigh with utter fulfillment, and in that moment, this new opera finally had meaning.

All this wonder and waste,” sewn together, flavors Intimate Apparel, A New Opera with numerous different musical references, finding its solidness in its compositional structure and delivery. It does justice to the material, and the timeframe yet I wish the sound intuitively infused me with as much emotional resonance as the piece clearly intended to create. Ultimately, we can easily see that the final outfit is exquisitely well crafted and lovely to look at and listen to, but maybe it just wasn’t made to fit my theatrical frame.


My love for theater started when I first got involved in high school plays and children's theatre in London, Ontario, which led me—much to my mother’s chagrin—to study set design, directing, and arts administration at York University in Toronto. But rather than pursuing theater as a career (I did produce and design a wee bit), I became a self-proclaimed theater junkie and life-long supporter. I am not a writer by trade, but I hope to share my views and feelings about this amazing experience we are so lucky to be able to see here in NYC, and in my many trips to London, Enlgand, Chicago, Toronto, Washington, and beyond. Living in London, England from 1985 to 1986, NYC since 1994, and on my numerous theatrical obsessive trips to England, I've seen as much theater as I can possibly afford. I love seeing plays. I love seeing musicals. If I had to choose between a song or a dance, I'd always pick the song. Dance—especially ballet—is pretty and all, but it doesn’t excite me as, say, Sondheim lyrics. But that being said, the dancing in West Side Story is incredible! As it seems you all love a good list, here's two. FAVORITE MUSICALS (in no particular order): Sweeney Todd with Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris in 2005. By far, my most favorite theatrical experience to date. Sunday in the Park with George with Jenna Russell (who made me sob hysterically each and every one of the three times I saw that production in England and here in NYC) in 2008 Spring Awakening with Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in 2007 Hedwig and the Angry Inch (both off-Boadway in 1998 and on Broadway in 2014, with Neal Patrick Harris, but also with Michael C. Hall and John Cameron Mitchell, my first Hedwig and my far), Next To Normal with Alice Ripley (who I wish I had seen in Side Show) in 2009 FAVORITE PLAYS (that’s more difficult—there have been so many and they are all so different): Angels in American, both on Broadway and off Lettice and Lovage with Dame Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in 1987 Who's Afraid of Virginai Woolf with Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in 2012 Almost everything by Alan Ayckbourn, but especially Woman in Mind with Julia McKenzie in 1986 And to round out the five, maybe Proof with Mary Louise Parker in 2000. But ask me on a different day, and I might give you a different list. These are only ten theatre moments that I will remember for years to come, until I don’t have a memory anymore. There are many more that I didn't or couldn't remember, and I hope a tremendous number more to come. Thanks for reading. And remember: read, like, share, retweet, enjoy. For more go to

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