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Costume designer has Leon’s “The Music Man” in the can

Molly Weller's fashionable redesign of River City, Iowa, lights up the stage with vibrant colors at Leon High School's summer spectacular, “The Music Man.” The Leon High School Choral Department presents the show June 27-30 and July 4-7.

Autodidactic, self-made

As an actor in the theater, the best thing you can do is to form a close friendship with the costume designer. Your character can transform from a naked stage showman to a well-fitting starlet in an instant.

The costume designer is part of the team of theatre technicians who, under the guidance of the show director, create a lively stage world that is intended to highlight the characters and advance their story.

Molly Weller leads the team of seamstresses in Leon High School's choir and theater programs. Together, they have dressed worlds ranging from 17 Oompa Loompa costumes for the stage musical “Willy Wonka” to period wigs for this year's “The Music Man.”

Although Weller began her theater career at a young age on stage with the role of little orphan Annie in the hit musical “Annie,” she didn’t find her true calling as a costume designer until her daughter began performing in musicals in the Tallahassee area.

With her grandmother's childhood sewing lessons in her heart and the guidance of her steady hand, Weller taught herself to sew. She started with table runners for her wedding and progressed to costume pieces for school plays.

“I literally started as a mom who wanted to find a way to help,” says Weller. “My daughter went to a local youth theater and I started helping out with their 'Sewing Saturdays.'” Weller found joy in creating original pieces with her hands. Her work has evolved from simple sewing to designing clothing from scratch, all the while staying true to her core desire: to create something that children feel comfortable in.

Costume for the character

Weller is a full-time state employee, working on improving job training and employability by day, and a costume designer by night, working hard to sew something special for students. She is a hero of Tallahassee Children's Theater. For Weller, fashion is art. There are no rules to follow, and the creative possibilities are endless.

The goal of a costume is to highlight a character and help an actor play that character more convincingly. Weller cites the example of the actor who plays Mayor Shinn and his wife in “The Music Man.” The characters are uptight and wealthy citizens of the city. Weller's choice of colors and textures for these costumes reflects these characteristics.

In the case of the mayor's wife, it results in the actress standing upright and bobbing her head, which, as Weller says, “only adds to the incredible personality of the character that I want the audience to feel when they see her.” Colors also play a big role in the costume vision for the show.

This can be seen in the development of the color palette of the main character Harold Hill, which changes from muted colors to more and more colors as the character develops.

Guided by the vision of director Robert A. Stuart, Weller created a River City, Iowa circa 1912 through meticulous planning and patient design. To prepare, she began reading the script, organizing each character's action by scene, and cataloging how many costumes were needed for each character.

Weller understands that theater is a collaborative sport, so she consulted the choreographer to figure out how the characters should move on stage. Once the cast was finalized, costumes were chosen from Leon High's well-maintained costume collection in the correct sizes. Still, the costumes have to be constructed from scratch.

“In this show, we have about 34 handmade dresses,” says Weller. “Not to mention all the beautiful hats that go with them.” Luckily for Weller, her amazing team of volunteers sew around the clock to bring this production to life.

Once technical week begins, final adjustments are made and on opening night the curtain rises to reveal the finished costumes in all their glory.

Summer spectacle at Leon High

No longer just hemming choir gowns and suits for shows, Weller is now vice president of the Leon Friends of Music grant organization, focusing on recruiting volunteers and organizing events such as the Performing Arts Winter Showcase and the Summer Musical.

Weller knows that costumes for a show like The Music Man take a village, and is grateful for the amazing work of volunteer seamstresses like Emily Geyer, Sydney Hockett, Linda Maxwell, Anna Norris, Laurinda Norris, Lisa Peacock, Lea Reeves, Sharon Spratt, Wanda Tillman and Niki Welge.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first performance of “The Music Man” at Leon High School. The show has a real sense of community for Tallahassee and, because it is set around July 4, 1912, it conveys a sense of American nostalgia.

“There can be so much negativity in the news and this show is just good. It's something the whole community can watch and support,” says Weller. “A bonus is that you leave the cinema singing along to the tunes for days!”

So, before attending the performance of “The Music Man” at Leon High School, train your vocal cords and spend your days singing the unforgettable tunes.

Dr. Christy Rodriguez de Conte is a writer for the Council on Culture & Arts (COCA), the umbrella organization for arts and culture in the Capital Region (www.tallahasseearts.org).

Anna Harden

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