The Inside Skinny

~ Star Ledger by Michael Sommers; 14/11/2005 ~

NEW YORK -- An immensely popular star of London West End musicals like "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" (and let's not forget he also was the original Marius of "Les Miserables"), Michael Ball concedes his role as a dubious aristocrat in "The Woman in White" represents a decided change of pace.

"It's not my usual gig," says Ball. "In this show I don't get the girl -- I get the rat."

True. As the disreputable Count Fosco in Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical thriller that makes its Broadway bow on Thursday, Ball performs "You Can Get Away With Anything" while a live rat named Beatrice scuttles up and down his arm.

What's more, eight times a week, Ball has to make himself over physically into the Count's rococo and decidedly roly-poly form.

It takes three other people backstage and more than an hour to transform the boyishly handsome actor into an odd Ball.

The dandified fat man the star portrays is considered by fans of Victorian literature to be the most colorful figure in "The Woman in White." Wilkie Collins' 1860 best-seller spins around Laura, an heiress wooed and wed by an unscrupulous nobleman for her fortune.

A dabbler in darker sciences, Fosco is the wicked husband's chum and proves to be a deceptive charmer. Fosco's eccentric presence provides much of the humor in Lloyd Webber's musical version of Collins' story.

Michael Crawford originated Fosco in the show's London premiere in 2004. Ball assumed the role some months later when Crawford fell ill -- going into the production on a scant 10 days' notice -- and subsequently agreed to co-star in the New York version with his friend Maria Friedman ("I just love her to bits"), who plays Laura's valiant, rescuing sister.

"The Woman in White" marks the 43-year-old Ball's second appearance in a New York production of a Lloyd Webber musical, having starred in "Aspects of Love" here for a year-long stint in 1990.

Backstage at the Marquis Theatre, Ball wraps himself in a bathrobe and reluctantly settles before a mirror. "I hate sitting in this chair," he mildly grumbles, calling his makeup process "the most tedious, bloody thing on Earth."

Three pieces are key to Ball's elaborate transformation. The very last to be applied is the easiest -- a wig of dark, flowing, greasy-looking curls that caps over Ball's own pinned-down ash-blond hair (and microphone).

What takes the most time and trouble at the make-up table is a prosthetic jowl specially created of foam latex that envelops Ball's jaw. "I wanted to have as much of my own face as possible free -- because that's how you act," says Ball, explaining how the piece was developed. "Apart from it being really hot and uncomfortable, it doesn't impinge on my singing."

The prosthetic is applied with glue along Ball's jawline and neck in a five-minute process and then carefully coordinated in color to tone with the remainder of Fosco's sallow-shaded complexion over the next 45 minutes.

"If you don't get the edge of the thing blended in correctly with the rest, the whole illusion is killed," notes makeup artist Vincent Schicchi. The actor applies makeup to his hands and around his eyes as Schicchi concentrates on the flesh tones.

A sweeping set of mustachios in the "imperial" style favored by Napoleon III finally festoons Fosco's chin and cheeks.

"And then it all has to be slowly scraped off me face after every show," says Ball. "It's not like one of those disguises James Bond simply pulls over his head." On matinee days, the actor remains in the dressing room between performances to preserve his stage appearance.

The other essential piece is a fat suit created of soft foam that gives Fosco his egg-shaped torso. Wearing biker shorts, Ball steps into the contrivance only after his makeup is basically completed. Remarking that the tan-colored suit resembles a dead and gutted turkey, Ball fondly refers to it as "Bernard" -- after poultry tycoon Bernard Matthews, England's version of Frank Perdue.

"It's awkward to wear but it works, because when I got into the suit for the first time the character fully came to me," says Ball. Fosco is meant to be remarkably graceful in spite of his heft, and Ball reports that the bulky yet lightweight suit helps him to foster the character's daintiness. A parade of flamboyant waistcoats distinguishes Fosco's showy wardrobe worn over Bernard. "Layer upon layer upon layer," says Ball, who admits to abundant perspiration in performance.

Real mice as well as Beatrice the rat lend their own, um, essence to Fosco's onstage appearance. "Yes, they look darling, but they're incontinent little things and they stink," says the actor. "They pee all over me a pint a night. We've got wet wipes everywhere I go."

Ball remarks with a grin that prior to this show he had worked with rodents before -- "but they only had two legs."

Because his character enters the musical some 35 minutes into the show, the curtain has already been up for awhile before Ball at last completes his makeup. "So what do you think?" wonders Ball, winking into the mirror as the rascally Fosco. "Some fat, evil bastard, hey?"

Thanks to Doris and Terry Von Glahn for providing the interview :-D

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