Women on the Las Vegas stage: ‘Jersey Girls’

Each actor has a wardrobe station in this backstage zone, but most costume changes have to be made so quickly that they are done in "quick-changes' in the wings.

Like all professional musical theater performers, the actors in the Las Vegas production of “Jersey Boys” spend their lives becoming lots of different people on stage. But the changes come faster for the four women in this show than for most.

“Within the first act, I get shot out of a cannon and I don’t stop, so I don’t exactly have all the luxurious time offstage before I walk on to ‘become’ another character,” says Nikka Wahl, who plays Frankie Valli’s daughter Francine and a host of other characters named and unnamed, in the show at Paris Las Vegas.

In a short scene in a church, Wahl plays Four Seasons member Nick Massi’s date, who has been dragged along to hear young Frankie Valli sing.

“She’s gets to be this really annoying floozie,” Wahl says.

This is one of Wahl’s favorite characters. She raises her voice and lets out the girl’s characteristic nasal wail, complete with a Jersey accent: “I thought we were goin’ to the movies!” she whines. “I wanna see ‘The Bloooooob!'”

This is one rare scene for which Wahl has a few seconds to prepare offstage.

“I physicalize it,” she says. “I’m the last one that has to run on, so I’ll go —”

She fidgets and flails, then shoves her fists down by her sides and throws out her chin before she trudges onto an imaginary stage whining, “Nickyyyyy!”

“That’s all I really have time to do,” she says.

There are only three women in “Jersey Boys” on any given night, so the changes have to be quick in order for the actors to play different characters in almost every scene.

At the time I met the cast, Sarah Lowe served as “Jersey Boys” dance captain and a swing actor — someone who could play any female role.

Backstage at the theater, she describes the quickest change in the show.

“[The actor] comes off out of the boyfriends car scene, has to take her dress off super fast and her shoes and her wig, put this on, a different wig and slippers and quickly go back on stage to fight with Frankie,” she says.

Props and costumes (like these shoes) are quick-rigged to make fast changes possible.

From exit to re-entrance, the change takes 14 seconds.

There are all kinds of tricks to help the actors make a quick switch — from stage-side changing rooms to a staff that helps them change wigs to specially rigged costumes and props that can slip on or off in a fraction of a second.

Costuming is key to Wahl, Lowe and their cast-mates who convincingly portray many more character than there are actors.

Wahl recalls something she heard a guest say one night during the curtain call. She calls it “the best compliment we could get.”

“Someone in the audience was like, ‘Oh, the rest of the girls went home!'” Wahl remembers. She explains that if she and the two other girls who played that night had convinced theater-goers that there were more than three girls in the cast, they had done their jobs well.

Wahl, Lowe and Megan Nicole Arnoldy (Frankie’s girlfriend Lorraine and others) tell me that compared to screen acting, theater work allows actors to portray multiple characters convincingly, because the audience is far away from the stage.

The same principle allows performers to play characters much younger and much older than their actors are, which Wahl says has allowed her to step into the shoes of vastly different women.

“The top two credits on my resume are Cosette, this sweet little ingénue (from ‘Les Misérables’) and then Linda (from ‘The Wedding Singer’), this hard-rock bitch fiancée that leaves her husband at the altar.”

The girls explain auditions for a show like “Jersey Boys” require that actors come dressed to show off how well they can fit the role they want.

“They do want sexy women,” Lowe says. “… They’re like, ‘Come looking smokin’ hot. Wear lots of make-up. Wear short dresses.'”

That’s part of the job, the actors tell me. They don’t mind dressing up because if they land a role in a show like “Jersey Boys,” they get to flaunt their femininity and have a lot of fun.

Wahl describes the girls’ main feature number, “My Boyfriend’s Back,” in which they dress in sequinned pastels and sing as the all-girl band The Angels.

“When we come out, we get to have this power walk,” she says. “It’s all about being strong, sexy, confident women.”

But Wahl’s title role demands something different. As Francine, she is strong-willed and determined to be independent, but she is a still vulnerable.

Francine is just 16 years old when she dies. Wahl is 28.

The girls tell me that actors can typically be cast as characters about 10 years older or 10 years younger than they are.

Before she became the 25-ish Lorraine in “Jersey Boys,” Arnoldy played the title role in “The Drowsy Chaparone” — a melodramatic 40- or 50-something ‘woman of the world.’

Still, the girls explain, there comes a time in every actor’s career when she can no longer play an ingénue — and later, a time when she will no longer be eligible to play a leading lady.

Before “Jersey Boys,” Lowe understudied 20-year-old Sophie in the Las Vegas production of “Mamma Mia!”

“Now I’m closer to the mom range,” Lowe says, “and I could never be cast as that anymore.”

Lowe recently took a break from “Jersey Boys” because she is expecting her first child. Some of the male actors have taken paternity leave, but this is the first time a woman in the show has taken maternity leave — probably, Lowe thinks, because there are so few girls in the cast.

When I visited in May, Lowe was still performing — though the show’s wardrobe experts had fitted her with special costumes that helped hide her tummy.

All the actors’ costumes are designed with the real people who will wear them in mind (not just the ‘ideal’ characters) but because the four women in the cast play so many different roles, reality has to be stretched a little.

For example, each actor has about a dozen wigs. Each was created with the actor’s real hair in mind, but the show demands a huge range of styles.

“We start in the ’50s and end in the ’80s, so our hairstyles have to change … from the first wigs we put on, which are kind of fixed bobs, to the finale, when we’re in our curly ’80s wave,” Lowe says.

All the female actors have long, beautiful hair. They say they are lucky that they get to wear wigs so that they don’t have to treat their natural hair when they make scene changes.

Wahl tells me that she has a friend in another Vegas show who put extensions in her hair so she could keep achieving the same look on stage even though she had lost a lot of hair from curling and re-curling it night after night.

Wahl says she feels fortunate that all she has to do is pull on a different wig to change looks — though, she says, the tight pulled-back style she has to wear under the wigs isn’t easy to manage.

“My hairline has already receded like and extra inch,” she jokes.

It’s especially important for the women in “Jersey Boys” to ‘look’ each part because the musical is based on real people and events. The show is period-perfect, down to the design of microphones, which change throughout the show to accurately portray the technology Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons would have used during each performance.

There is one implicitly gay character in the production (record producer Bob Crewe, played in Las Vegas by John Salvatore), but otherwise, the gender binary is pretty absolute — consistent with the social spirit of the eras the musical represents.

Lowe explains that some minor roles could be played by any good actor but that the success of the primary female characters depend on the actors portraying each ’50s, ’60s, ’70s or ’80s woman accurately.

“If [a male actor] is dressed as a preacher and he comes out and says [a line] instead of a church lady, the audience isn’t going to be any the wiser because the line is so simple,” Lowe says, describing one of the show’s minor characters. “But you could never have a boy do Francine’s lines. You could never have a boy be Lorraine and break up with Frankie. You could never have a man be Mary at the pizza table and tell Frankie how he should spell his name.”

So it helps that Wahl, Lowe, Arnoldy and the other women in the cast (universal swing Candi Boyd and Kara Tremel, who took over for Lowe) have a handle on what womanhood meant in the Zeitgeist of the eras their characters live in.

But outside the world of the play, these girls are nothing like caricatures. They do it all.

Arnoldy shows me the marks on the stage that show the actors where they should land during certain scenes. There must be at least 150.

“I remember thinking it was just Funfetti,” Arnoldy says. But now she can run her track easily.

She operates one of the on-stage cameras during the scenes where Frankie, Bob, Nick and Tommy perform on TV. Modern equipment is hidden inside the shells of old-fashioned TV cameras, and it is her job to focus the camera on the boys so the live video can be shown on big screens high above on the set.

As dance captain, Lowe was responsible for training new cast members.

She re-enacts instructing a new actor on a scene change: “When you’re this character, you do this and then you go off and you change. You’re going to put your moustache on. You’re going to take this guitar rack off, and then you’re just going to stand there. You’re going to take that off, you’re going to change, and then you have a line.”

“You’re never teaching somebody one role,” she reminds me. “Everybody in the show — unless you’re Frankie, Bob, Nick or Tommy — has multiple roles they’re playing.”

Lowe knows that responsibility better than anyone.

“I’m in the building every night,” she says. “If something goes wrong, if someone gets injured or sick or takes a vacation, then I go on for them.”

Lowe recalls that the cast has been short-handed before, and she has had to fill two actors’ shoes in a single show. She calls those performances “Mary-Lorraine” or “Francine-Lorraine” shows.

Lowe has even filled in for male actors.

“I had to play the trumpet on the bridge one time,” she says. “Dressed as a dude.”