‘Intimate Apparel’ provides turn-of-century musical extravaganza

Madonna once sang, “Music makes the people come together.” It’s something that Justin Ellington and Whitney White both believe.

Ellington, a sound designer and composer, and White, a “pianist in the making,” are striking some chords in Chautauqua Theater Company’s Intimate Apparel, which continues its run at 4 p.m. Wednesday in Bratton Theater.

Ellington worked with CTC in 2014 and 2012 as sound designer for A Raisin in the Sun and As You Like It, respectively. Ellington is a man of emotions and finds music cathartic — not just for him, but also the characters in the play.

“If I was sick during a tour, the minute I would go up on stage and start playing, all of the pain would disappear; in that moment it would be gone,” he said. “When my friends say they want to be writers or artists, I warn them that they are opening themselves up to be filled up. [Intimate Apparel’s] Esther and Mayme are artists and using their skills to release and fill themselves.”

Of the two ladies, Mayme is the musician.

A recent Brown University/Trinity Rep graduate, White plays Mayme, a concert pianist who makes a living as a singing prostitute.

While White is not a concert pianist, she “knows enough piano to write and learn music” and will play the piano and sing a few tunes in the play.

“I am playing six crafted moments and singing in two of them,” White said.

Juggling acting, singing and playing piano is not an easy task, but White seems to know how to make it work.

Intimate Apparel is nothing like anything I have done before,” she said. “It is hard because the play is built in an episodic way; you meet one person, jump a scene and meet all four characters, and then it starts to go back and forth. You are not weaving through its episodes, and it gets jerky. But I love it, and I love the challenges with it.”

Ellington is not a fan of the usual sound queues that a sound designer is expected to do.

“Being the sound designer, it is actually great to have the sound made by the human,” he said. “It allows for personal expression to come out and the show does not get stale or stagnant.”

White’s playing will bring a change to the show every night and Ellington is thankful for the music to be there live while he is in the box.

The turn of the century was an exciting time in the musical world, Ellington said. Because Intimate Apparel is set in 1905 New York, the music is bound to take the audience back to the early makings of ragtime music.

“Ragtime music imitated the march by composer John Philip Sousa. His music was brash and proud, full of major chords and there were instances of turmoil in the music, but those were  always resolved,” Ellington said.

All of these qualities are present in ragtime music and Intimate Apparel. One of the first music pieces played by White is “Great Crush Collision March,” composed by Scott Joplin.

“For me, ragtime can be broken into three pieces like happy, inquisitive, and then there is resolve,” Ellington said. “It covers a whole range of emotions. As music progresses, it gets complex.”

Ellington uses emotion to compose his music; he always approaches the plays as a composer and not the sound designer. The story of the play is of utmost importance to him and his aim is to have an audience remember the story rather than just the music.

“I work with emotions — not so much technique,” he said. “Certain chords give you certain emotions. One chord may put on a smile, another may make you frown, another may question, another can leave you in suspense. Music theory is that certain chord progressions take you to a major chord or can justify you resolving in this major chord. Everybody doesn’t make it: Some people land up on a chord right before the major chord, some people get that major chord, that smile, and go too far and end up into the minor.”

His emotions-over-technique attitude is what makes his work most enjoyable for the actors, especially White.

“[Ellington’s] work is so good to hear,” she said. “I have been on plays where the scene work is good and the music will come on, punctuate the scene and pull you out. Justin is a musician. Sound usually comes towards the end, and you tend to ignore it or work around it, but [Director] Vivienne [Benesch] insists that we work with it during our rehearsals, and that is a rarity.”

Esther, played by Tangela Large, is the leading lady of the play and while the story revolves around her relationships with the other characters, Mayme’s presence is of substantial importance in the play.

“Esther and I are best friends,” White said. “In some ways, I am telling Esther to be more like me, but really I also want to be more like her. As the play goes on, something sad happens and their relationship is never the same. It keeps me wondering what hope is there for Mayme. Intimate Apparel is the not a story of just relationships and sex, it is also of a sisterhood found and sisterhood lost.”