Arts & Entertainment Editor
This past Friday, Triad Stage held one of their four-day performances of “Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” This in concert performance was organized by UNCG’s North Carolina Summer Rep – a newly established non-curricular program for current students, alumni and community members, allowing actors and singers to professionally network their talents and succeed further into their careers.
After the NC Summer Rep’s first performance of “Into the Woods” in 2016, the program chose the thrilling story of “Sweeney Todd” as their 2017 production. The story, adapted by Christopher Bond’s 1973 play, with music by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler, is an operatic musical containing some of the most gruesome topics ever discussed on stage. This summer production was conducted by UNCG alumni, Justin P. Cowan, and directed by J. Scott Lapp. Also, with special direction by UNCG alumni and Broadway musical director of “Wicked,” Don Amendum.
Set in the Victorian Era, it begins with a barber coming home to London after being exiled for 15 years. He is a vengeful man, hoping to murder the judge that stole his past life, leaving his wife and daughter nowhere to be found. With help from the baker – the newly befriended Mrs. Lovett, Todd opens a barber shop above her restaurant. They begin a business relationship, in which Todd takes revenge for his lost life by murdering many of his clients, donating their bodies to Ms. Lovett to bake meat pies for unaware Londoners.
The ‘in concert’ performance was a unique twist on the regular musical version of “Sweeney Todd.” Unlike musicals, an ‘in concert’ places the orchestra on stage and uses little to no props and choreography. Shows such as this take more of a musical approach by placing the emphasis of the production on the acting, singing and music. There is also a nod to the orchestra, by the way all props are musical instruments or equipment. In this production of “Sweeney Todd,” the baker’s table was a bass drum, the meat grinder was a music stand and Todd’s scissors were stored in a flute case.
Aaron Phillips, the New York singer and actor and member of the International Symphony Tour, performed the eerie role of Sweeney Todd. With the turbulent mental state of his character, Phillips soared in his unnerving performance, including crazy-wide eyes, licking of lips and sporadic crescendos of his voice.
Phillips counterpart, the on and off-Broadway performer, Farah Alvin, played the part of Ms. Lovett. Alvin was a comedic genius, luring in plenty of laughs with her performance. Her singing and comedy held perfect timing with the orchestra.
Together, Phillips and Alvin were a tantalizing pair. Their harmonizing, like the rest of the talented cast, was extraordinary, as if their voices were competing to be heard.
The operatic aspects of the production were beautiful and fluid, as if it were an easy walk in the park.
The one critique I had with the production was staging. Scenes with the entire ensemble were disorganized and hectic, forcing some members of the ensemble to stand awkwardly off stage because there was a lack of room. With the orchestra and the entire cast in one small space, it was hard to find what I was supposed to be looking at. Yet, director Lapp must have held the same reservations, placing the ensemble on the two side balconies during other scenes.
One of my favorite parts about the NC Summer Rep’s production was the use of lighting and sounds. Many scenes had a thrilling appeal because of the shadows created on stage, and interspersed pops of orange and blue lighting. The unique use of sounds created suspense, such as the fast playing violins before Todd killed one of his clients. Then, an ear-tingling horn was used when Todd slashed his razor against his victims. Though the sets were mostly bare except for people, I found the lighting, sounds and music replaced the need for objects.
The wonderful connection between professional talent and UNCG students and alumni, resulted in a gripping performance, that could leave the hairs standing on some of the most trepid audience members. Though the fourth and final showing ended last Saturday, more summer productions by the NC Summer Rep are hopefully to come.