REVIEW: ECP Breaks with Tradition in Bold, Modern ‘Sweeney Todd’

Jimmy Harper is Sweeney Todd at Electric City Playhouse. Photo by Escobar Photogaphy
Jimmy Harper is Sweeney Todd at Electric City Playhouse.
Photo by Escobar Photogaphy

“Sweeney Todd” is an invigorating chamber musical that is wildly-entertaining and cleverly conceived. It’s full-throttle, a bit risqué and cuts right to the bone of the social power structure and the characters’ timeless motivations ‑­ love, lust and greed.

BY SANDY STAGGS
DRAMA CRITIC

The Electric City Playhouse in Anderson debuted some 22 years ago with Stephen Sondheim’s “Side By Side.” And now, for the first time in its repertoire, the company presents his masterpiece “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”

Ushering in the Halloween season with a musical thriller about a razor-wielding barber is a tall order for a community theatre that traditionally produces light comedies and dramas for its core audience of Baby Boomers. But more extraordinary is that this version of the classic customarily set in Victorian London has been modernized by director Noah Taylor and infused with a mostly young, vigorous troupe, in some non-traditional casting.

The graffiti-laden, decaying set (by Dalton Cole and Allison Starling) is gritty and urban. Starling’s costumes are contemporary and casual. And Bill Scott’s lighting constantly shifts from subtle moods to blood-red auras.

Based on Christopher Bond’s 1973 play about the creepy figure who originated in mid-19th Century penny dreadfuls, “Sweeney Todd” (with a book by Hugh Wheeler) is the tale of falsely-imprisoned barber Benjamin Barker who returns to London to exact revenge on his nemesis Judge Turpin, a corrupt politician who raped his wife and stole his infant daughter Johanna.

Barker, played by local metal rock performer Jimmy Harper, assumes a new identity, reopens his tonsorial shop and sharpens his silver razor. He is aided in his plan by a lonely widowed Cockney baker, Mrs. Lovett (Kelsey Elaine Wilbanks), who grinds up their victims into meat pies and serves them to a hungry, unsuspecting public.

Taylor, a co-founder of The Market Theatre Company just a block away, also directed ECP’s mirthful “Almost, Maine” last year. And his “Sweeney Todd” is a wholly invigorating chamber musical that is wildly entertaining and imaginative. It’s full-throttle, a bit risqué and cuts right to the bone of the social power structure and the characters’ timeless motivations ‑­ love, lust and greed.

A fearless, reflective Harper eschews the intrinsic operatic nature of his part in favor of the smooth belting of a hard rock balladeer. Tattooed nearly everywhere that’s visible, his body art becomes part of his costume, merging into his custom jeans adorned with images of other horror “monsters” that have come before Todd: Creature from the Black Lagoon, Werewolf, Dracula, etc. Yet, his Todd has a sense of humor and is all human in songs like “Pretty Woman.”

Kelsey Elaine Wilbanks is Mrs. Lovett in "Sweeney Todd" at Electric City Playhouse. Photo by Escobar Photogaphy
Kelsey Elaine Wilbanks is Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd” at Electric City Playhouse.
Photo by Escobar Photogaphy

Wilbanks, who hails from the  director’s alma mater Anderson University, also starred in the Market Theatre’s inaugural production of “The Fantasticks” as well as Judy in “9 to 5: The Musical.” But Mrs. Lovett may be her breakout role: she gives a fantastic, impassioned performance here with impeccable phrasing and pitch and delivers Sondheim’s patter lyrics with an uncanny level of comfort and adroitness.

And the duo are at their wittiest in “A Little Priest” when she asks Todd (and the audience) if he “gets her drift” at her morbid suggestion as what to do with Todd’s first victim.

But the finest scene in “Sweeney Todd” is the second act opener “God That’s Good!”  The striking dichotomy of Wilbanks and her new apprentice Tobias (Camila Escobar in her early teens at best in a gender-bending role and two wigs) singing and serving meat pies and ale to a bevy of customers as Harper above them, in an eerie nudge into Jack Nicholson territory (a la “The Shining”), slits a procession of clients’ throats and, with a single lever, deposits their bodies down a chute into the cellar.

The choreography (by Carlie Taylor) and timing of this segment plays like a macabre ballet and is mesmerizing to witness. BRAVO!

Vocally, the cast doesn’t always rise to the almost tortuous level of difficulty of the material but there are plenty of standouts for sure.

Baritone Dave DiGeronimo, for instance, as Judge Turpin, is bold, magnanimous and authoritative and gives probably the best traditional and straight-laced portrayal in the supporting cast.

Johnny Culwell as the handsome sailor Anthony and the splendidly-talented Anna Grace Horne as Johanna sparkle as the smitten young couple and don’t disappoint with the romantic ballad “Kiss Me.”

Heather Iwinski plays Turpin’s henchman The Beadle (written as a male role) and delivers a winsome “Parlor Songs” in her fine contra-alto register.

Miss Escobar, already an accomplished performer in the Upstate (“Kindertransport” at Centre Stage”), is solid and mature in her portrayal and sublime in her duet with Wilbanks, “Not  While I am Around.”

Nathaniel Stafford, fresh from SCCT’s “Beauty and the Beast” and the lead in the Mill Town Players’ recent “Oklahoma!”, adds pompous flair, an Italian accent and mad scientist hair to his  dissembling barber Pirelli, who challenges Todd to a shaving competition.

And Lynn Campbell is endearing as the wretched beggar woman who meanders in and out of the storyline.

The chorus of ten also has some powerful voices in its midst, with the sopranos making their presence well-known, particularly Heather Glew, who at one point reaches a High “D.” Luckily ECP serves wine in plastic cups and not glass that might shatter at such a frequency.

The rest of the ensemble is comprised of Audrey Dickson, Raekwon Fuller, Drew Glisson, Sara Orr, Jim Rasheed, Janean Thomason, Jessica Wayland, Carl Whitman and Paige Whitman.

Another treat is the live accompaniment by Music Director Jamie Hawkins and Amy Diffenderfer on dueling keyboards which does give the audience a close approximation of Sondheim’s complex brooding score; although I did miss his lush orchestrations after seeing a large-scale version last weekend in Asheville. The cast works without microphones so on occasion the vocals can be drowned out by the musicians, but the optics of the stage action do compensate plenty.

The scene transitions are swift and smooth. Taylor maximizes the entire space at ECP including the aisles and the utilitarian scenic design and layout packs no less than 13 portals to peer, enter and exit with set pieces and props, including the lobby doors.

Jim Rasheed also serves as producer. Emma McSharry is assistant director and stage manager. AJ Weaver is sound designer. And Will Nickles engineered the elaborate barber’s chair.

Mind you, “Sweeney Todd” does contain acts of violence and there is some blood-letting, so it’s not appropriate for youngsters.

 “Sweeney Todd” continues Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through Oct. 30 at Electric City Playhouse, 514 North Murray Ave. in Anderson. Call (864) 224-4248 or visit http://www.ecplayhouse.com.

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