“A Conversation with Edith Head” – Actors Theatre

This review aired on KBAQ September 19, 2011


Actors Theatre, Stage West, Herberger Theater Center
Phoenix, AZ

We all know Hollywood costume designer Edith Head’s memorable creations from her 1,131 films.  Even though she died in 1981 just short of her 84th birthday, what a joy it is to meet her anew in Susan Claassen’s fascinating “A Conversation with Edith Head.”  While the show starts the new Actors Theatre season, Claassen has performed her show to great acclaim throughout America and the world.

Not only does Claassen resemble the designer, she adds Head’s characteristic round dark glasses, tight hair bun that served as a pencil holder, her bangs, and the dark, unassuming suit so Head never rivaled the Hollywood legends she dressed.  And Claassen sounds just like what we remember during Head’s eight Academy Award wins from her 35 nominations.  It’s an artful re-creation.

Claassen’s exhaustive research is highlighted by Head’s biographer, Paddy Calistro, who co-authored the play.  So we get to partake in Head’s sharp wit, no-nonsense bluntness, her infamous “Edith-isms,” and her jabs at the stars she dressed.  We see Head’s genuine love of certain stars and hear insider stories about Hollywood stars and directors.  The commentary is both passionately positive but is also slammingly negative.  Some stars shine; others are bashed.

I could tell you stories about Barbara Stanwyck, Anne Baxter, Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor, and Gloria Swanson or relate largely untold stories about Hollywood’s most special films like “Sunset Boulevard” and “All About Eve” but that would spoil a funny tale of Hollywood’s greatest days.  Head’s long career was spent with just two studios, Paramount and Universal because Head’s loyalty is legendary for the former teacher who could hardly sketch when she bluffed her way into Paramount.

The playwrights developed a unique way of telling Head’s stories.  Stuart Moulton serves as Head’s Phoenix host and he already knows her well.  He keeps the show moving by asking probing questions that keep Head focused on her career and don’t let her get sidetracked by wandering reminiscences.

Before the show, Moulton is in the lobby asking for audience questions about Head and Claassen carries on a clever dialogue that launches many stories.  As she entered the theater opening night, Claassen bedeviled an audience member Head felt inappropriately dressed in shorts.  This gentleman was lambasted throughout the show.

I thought Head had never designed any Hollywood musicals but Head told the audience she designed “Anything Goes” and “White Christmas.”  As soon as I got home, I checked both films and Head had indeed designed them.  The information is that reliable.  “A Conversation with Edith Head” continues through October 2.  For tickets, call the Herberger Theater Center box office at 602-252-8497 or order tickets online at www.atphx.org.

Grade: A