The Colorful Process Behind How Chanhassen Dinner Theatres’ ‘Beautiful’ Costumes Are Made

The costume designs of Barb Portinga bring to life the times and tunes of Carole King

The wardrobe of a person’s life defines periods of struggle and success shaping our personality and style one look at a time. There is a musicality and storytelling to the costumes on stage at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres‘ production of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” playing through October.

Carole King Beautiful the Musical
Monet Sabel stars in Chanhassen Dinner Theatres’ production of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”

Photo by Dan Norman

The designs are the resourceful and meticulous work of long-time Chanhassen designer Barb Portinga. In her 34-year history at the theater, this is the largest show she’s worked on. With over 189 looks in two hours, the show covers two decades and is a history of pop music told through the eyes and lyrics of Carole King. The music is not only familiar to us but so, too, is the fashion; from the innocence of the ’50s to the freedom of the ’70s, it’s a feast for the eyes and ears.

For Portinga, it is about color and collaboration with other production designers, none more important to King’s look than the makeup and wigs by Lex Patton and Tracy Swenson. Each wig is hand built, one hair at a time, for Monet Sabel who wears as Carole King eight shows a week. The costumes define a generation and must reflect the historical and cultural references relevant to the world of King. Through creative color, playful patterns, and rich textures, the custom-made wardrobe on stage is truly a tapestry of talent.

There is glory to the life of Carole King and a sense of finding one’s voice through song and style. As the song says:
You’ve got to get up every morning
With a smile on your face
And show the world all the love in your heart
Then people gonna treat you better
You’re gonna find, yes you will
That you’re beautiful, as you feel

Tell me a little bit about when you realized you wanted to be a creative person professionally. Did you always do creative things or fashion, or how did you wind up as a designer?
No. I didn’t recognize that it was something that I could do for a living. It’s not a nurse or a teacher or fireman. I don’t really sketch well. And so, I didn’t really think of art as what I was meant for. I’ve always had a solid flair for clothing, though. My mother would tell stories about me being really picky as a child about putting my outfits together. When I was in my 20s and trying to find my path, which included detours into the stock market and being a waitress and all sorts of things, I always had a distinct style. I’m tall and thin, and so I can wear lots of things. I discovered vintage in the ’80s and went wild for a time. Theater was always my thing that I did on the side whenever I was in school. Because I had learned how to sew when I was young, I gravitated toward costumes the second time I was in college. That was at Augsburg. The designer at Augsburg was the resident costume designer at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres at the time, Sandra Schulte. She basically taught me how to be a costume designer. The first thing you want to be able to be good at is alterations. So, I hired myself out to a dry cleaner, and taught myself how to do alterations by being paid for it. It was 1990 when I came to Chanhassen and Rich Hamson, who was my mentor on “Beautiful” and has been my mentor ever since I showed up at Chan.

You said you feel like you’re not a good sketcher, what skills do you think are needed for a good costume designer?
I think vision, a good color sense, a sense of style, good communication skills, flexibility.

What advice would you have for budding costume designers?
Learn how to repair your car so you don’t have to pay for it. Because it’s an expense. It’s a big expense. And if you don’t have access to inexpensive transportation, it’s going to be a challenge. So, that’s what I always say.

I like that. “Beautiful” seems like a dream show. These are familiar times and familiar fashions for the audience. How do you go about building a character like Carole King through color, pattern, and fabric?
When I designed “Beautiful,” one of the things that I chose for the overarching design process was that characters had a signature color, and I knew that hers was going to be blue, in part inspired by the Broadway blue dress that everyone sees her in at the piano for Carnegie Hall. And also just because the tradition of a leading lady oftentimes being in blue, that’s an overarching thing. It felt right for her. A lot of things I do are intuitive, and the color choice was one of them. And she and Jerry share blue. He departs from her in the flavor of blue. Hers is more of a true blue in the navy and those sorts of things. And his adds some gold and goes off into brown tones in some places. So, what I did for her story was start out in more simple lines and colors. Then as her life got more complicated, her fabrics got darker and more interesting and had more pattern. I decided early on that she was going to be in pants a lot. Carole King doesn’t do tightly fitted. She’s a comfy person. I listened to her biography, and so I got a sense of her as a person. She’s a jeans and T-shirt person. One of the things in her biography was her go-to a black T-shirt and jeans. I can’t put that on stage. That would be pretty boring for two hours. But also, one of the themes of the play for me is her emphasis on family and the connections with her kids, and being a mom was always one of the things that she wanted to do. I put her in maternity-inspired tops right away, like goes from her Carnegie Hall dress, quick changes into her teenage ’50s representative dress. And then pretty quickly, she’s in a maternity top and has a couple, three of those. And then everything after that is loose-fitting, flowing, comfortable clothes. So, she’s in pants pretty much as soon as she is able to.

Carole King Beautiful the Musical
“When I designed ‘Beautiful,’ one of the things that I chose for the overarching design process was that characters had a signature color, and I knew that hers was going to be blue,” says costume designer Barb Portinga.

Photo by Dan Norman

Tell me how you describe the overall look of the show?
I wanted to transition through time with a color story in addition to the character colors. Because it’s a memory play, it’s told from Carol’s point of view. I wanted to reflect the memory play aspect. I’m not sure what language I would use for that. The first scene when she and Betty show up at 1650, that whole scene is in sepia tones. The blue comes in when she meets Jerry. There’s a little bit of green with Donny and his secretary. It’s a gradual adding of color until we pop into more bright colors in the ’60s and stuff. Another design thing that I did was, any time someone is on TV, they’re in black and white.

“I really feel transformed by what I’m wearing. I sometimes like to work that way, as an actor, from the ‘outside in’—what I’m wearing has a huge effect on my performance. I choose my audition outfits carefully, for this reason.” –Monet Sabel

How conscious are you of cultural diversity and the authenticity of the characters being historical characters and body conscious in just the times that they were in and the times we’re in now?
I did a lot of research, and there was lots of conversation with people, with the hair and makeup people. We collaborated with how to use natural textures on ethnic hair and how to express the women, how to express sexuality without hitting you over the head. How to make them be period-appropriate and sexy but not tell the wrong story.

Do you feel, as a designer, you design more for the actors or for the audience?
I design for the actors. There’s a little bit of audience awareness for me in this show, particularly the Drifters. I took the audience into consideration in how sparkly they are. I really like to collaborate, though, with an actor because they’re the ones who are telling the story and portraying the character. I’m a really collaborative designer. I’m always asking people’s opinion on things and listening to feedback. It’s my job to make the decision, but I’m not going to make it alone.

Your designs are really best highlighted and probably most appreciated during those musical numbers. How important do you think that collaboration is with the lighting designer and with the choreographer and bringing it all together to highlight the costumes?
The collaboration with the choreographer is particularly important. There’s the interaction between the dancers and their feet and the choreographer and everyone being able to be safe. It’s important for everyone to know what shoes they’re wearing when they’re doing heavy dance numbers and to get those onto people’s feet as quickly as possible. I was really grateful that the go-go boots worked. They were for “Locomotion.”

How you think the costumes share in Carole’s journey?
I really liked the way that we were able to come up with the fabric layers for her Carnegie dress. It’s unusual. The fabric for her dress, I designed myself. It’s a totally unique fabric. I thought it was going to go over a matching satin, and when the samples came in, it just did not have the pop that we wanted. So, Richie and I spent a bunch of time figuring out what could go behind it. And it turns out to be sequins. That was a spectacular choice and really brings forward something that the director talked about when she saw the sample of the fabric. The first sample had different shapes in it than the final fabric. And she’s like, “I really like how it has some fireworks a feel to it.” Now with the sequins behind, you get that firework pop that really makes the dress special and makes it shine.

What look makes you the happiest?
Honestly, it’s probably “Locomotion.” Watching KateMarie Andrews hop out of that jumper and step forward into the song. The go-go boots, which are cute with the little jumper, but then bam!, there’s everybody dancing together. I really like that one a lot. It’s hard to pick, but that’s the one that pops for sure. And because of the way that we worked out that quick change.

Carole King Beautiful the Musical
Costume sketch for Little Eva

Costume sketches by Shawn VanBriesen

Carole King Beautiful the Musical
Little Eva in “Locomotion”

Photo by Dan Norman

Minnesota Monthly is dedicated to the spirit of Minnesota. What’s the spirit of Minnesota to you?
Oh, wow. I think that people who live here are adventurous and freewheeling and stubborn and not afraid of a challenge and friendly, to a point. We have a strong focus on family. We’re really educated and family based. We like the idea of sharing things with our families and having experiences together and teaching each other that way rather than dogmatically really indoctrinating the next generation. That’s one of the things I love about working at Chan, we offer generations of people a chance to create memories together.