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October 24, 2014

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ENTERTAINMENT:

For some Strip performers, the real tension plays out backstage

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Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times / MCT

Paula Nyland, dresser for “Vegas! The Show,” stages costumes in one of numerous dark corners backstage at the Saxe Theater in Las Vegas.

Backstage Dresser

Actor Eric Jordan Young hurries to attach a microphone as dresser Paula Nyland stands by backstage at "Vegas! The Show," at the Saxe Theater in Las Vegas. Launch slideshow »

Paula Nyland stands in the shadows, waiting for her star. The curtain barely hits the floor before the backstage calm erupts into measured chaos. Mammoth sets on wheels glide past like icebergs in the darkness. Dozens of singers, dancers, musicians and stagehands hurry silently through a warren of passageways. Suddenly, Eric Jordan Young, the lead performer in “Vegas! The Show” stands before Nyland.

He’s ready for a sort of duet they’ve performed hundreds of times behind the curtains at the Saxe Theater at Planet Hollywood — two shows each night, six days a week. In the first and fastest of his 11 costume shifts, the 41-year-old actor and singer transforms in 20 madcap seconds from an aging worker in overalls to a young debonair nightclub singer in a black tuxedo.

He can’t do it without Nyland, a 52-year-old stagehand known in performance circles as a dresser. Theirs is an artistic relationship as old as the theater itself, one that plays out backstage every night at theaters here and nationwide.

The night’s first adventure comes in a walkway where Young arrives in his handyman outfit. Looking toward the stage, focusing on the action to come, he wordlessly hands Nyland the first act’s onstage props before bending to pull off his boots.

Dressed in dark clothes to blend in with the background, Nyland kneels to put the boots into a plastic basket the size of a grocery store tote. He lifts one leg at a time as she pulls off the overalls to reveal tuxedo pants, shirt and bow tie already in place. Without even looking, she tosses the denim outfit toward the basket and springs to her feet.

As Young slips into his dress shoes with an elongated shoe horn, she wipes his forehead and grabs his jacket. The actor turns from her, throwing back his arms as his stage butler in black helps him slip on the last bit of costume.

Then he’s gone. Nyland hurries to a spot near a stairway for the next change, 90 seconds away.

•••

Nyland is a former dancer who performed at the Moulin Rouge and toured with Engelbert Humperdinck before retiring to raise a family. In 2010, she returned to the stage: as a seamstress for a fast-paced show celebrating the Strip’s song-and-dance fare between the 1940s and 1970s, including Elvis, the Rat Pack and Sonny & Cher.

It wasn’t long before Young, a former Broadway performer who is known as a perfectionist, hired her as his dresser. It took her time to discover his habits — to develop that synchronicity she came to realize is just as important backstage as in front of the audience.

She learned to carefully lay out the pieces of her actor’s outfits so everything is at hand as the costumes fly on and off. She plotted her “track,” the route she takes between each costume change across the 65-by-50-foot space backstage, carrying the tools of her trade: scissors, pliers, needles and thread.

Nyland often whispers to keep Young calm. She knows he often needs someone to listen to a nervous monologue that requires no answer. On this night, following a number in which the sound system went awry, Nyland gets Young talking about his two beloved Rhodesian ridgebacks, Pasha and Keely, to quiet his nerves.

“She’s Eric’s mother,” says former stage manager Gregg Ziemba. “When he walks into the theater, he wants her there. If she’s not, you can feel the tension.”

In award speeches, actors often praise their dressers. Young’s no different.

“She’s my confidant — the only one I’ll tell if my back hurts or I feel sick,” he says. “Once the show starts, it’s just me and Paula.”

•••

Young is a quick-change artist who, during the 90-minute show, morphs from Louis Prima to Sammy Davis Jr. to Sonny Bono to one of Gladys Knight’s Pips and a swaying member of Earth, Wind & Fire. The longest change time is three minutes, but the actor and dresser rarely take that long, having learned to anticipate each other’s movements.

One change plays out near a giant mock-up of the old Moulin Rouge casino marquee, another in a cramped anteroom alongside showgirls removing their stockings and headdresses. Before each, Nyland has carefully prepared like a NASCAR crew chief readying for a driver’s pit stop. She knows whether to have a costume draped over her right arm or left for flow, hangers always at the ready.

The night’s second change is near a flight of movable stairs that 11 members of a big band climb to reach an elevated stage. As musicians with trombones and violins tromp past, Nyland has already set out a bottle of cold water, damp towel and portable fan to keep Young cool. There’s a box of lip balm, gum and candy if he wants an M&M for a jolt of energy.

The pair have 45 seconds to transform the star into singer and trumpeter Prima. Young peels down to his underwear. As he snaps the stays on his dress shirt and buckles his pants, Nyland places the pre-noosed tie over his head, cinching it tight to his neck. She throws the end over his shoulder so it doesn’t get in the way. Then she grabs his jacket and waits until Young slips on his shoes.

She holds a flashlight over his snack kit. He passes on the snack this night just as the dresser realizes the beam is dim.

“Sorry,” she says. “The batteries are low.”

“That’s OK,” he answers in a distant voice.

He grabs his trumpet and gives her a theatrical wink. Then he’s gone again, but not before saying thank you.

“He whispers that,” she says, “every time he walks away from me.”

•••

Sometimes bad, all-too-avoidable things happen.

Like the time Young fell on a slick floor. Or the night he was almost forced offstage by a lumbering set piece in view of the gasping audience. “I just kept him moving,” she says about his next moments offstage. “I was like, ‘You’re going to be fine. Get your jacket. Get back there. Off you go.’”

Young once almost rushed onstage in socks because Nyland couldn’t find his shoes. Unlike some actors, he never loses his temper with his dresser. But she pressures herself.

“If he doesn’t get on or offstage in one piece, it’s on me,” she says. “Every time.”

One time, Nyland dropped a suit jacket midchange, upsetting their usual flow. As she grappled to grasp the garment in the dark, “his arms were thrust back, going ‘come on, come on, come on,’" she recalls. Another time, Young forgot his oversized rings for a Sammy Davis Jr. number. She slipped the jewelry onto his fingers just moments before the curtain rose.

One night while Nyland helped another performer, a zipper broke on the dancer’s ball gown, sending Nyland’s hands flying toward her own face, breaking her glasses. As the dancer rushed back toward the stage, Nyland ran alongside, needle and thread in hand, putting the finishing touches on a new zipper.

The job is so stressful, a novice dresser quit after one day, citing backstage arguments that included a moody actor throwing a shoe at the costume director. The actor was later fired. Rather than bruise tender egos, dressers and costume runners know never to mention a performer’s weight or that an outfit suddenly doesn’t fit.

But there’s no tension between Nyland and her star. If a show has gone badly or she knows Young is bothered by something at home, she has a cold Heineken waiting for him in his dressing room after the final curtain.

“He takes a sip and relaxes,” she says, “and I go, ‘Ahhhh.’”

•••

Young comes offstage unhappy with the balky sound system: “Well, that was echoey.”

Nyland is ready for the night’s most difficult number: changing Young from a Pip to a member of Earth, Wind & Fire. For this go-round, nearly half a dozen pieces of clothing must be quickly shed. There’s even a change of socks, which sit in coiled balls awaiting the actor’s manic hands.

If the change wasn’t hard enough, Young must simultaneously sing backup for an act happening onstage. As he leans toward a microphone Nyland has placed beside him, she stands ready with his white sequined jumpsuit, medallion and black afro wig, careful not to utter a sound.

Between bursts of song, he puts on his wig and headband as she holds out his jumpsuit. He steps into the costume, and she readies the sleeves for his impatient arms.

As the star skips off toward the stage, the dresser exhales.

“That,” she says, “was a dance.”

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