On stage this spring: “Sweeney Todd” and “Oedipus Rex”

Each semester, Interlochen Arts Academy’s talented theatre students present two professionally produced mainstage performances. This year, the students are starring in a Broadway hit and a Greek classic: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Oedipus Rex. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at what you can expect to see on stage in Spring 2018.

Longtime Instructor of Theatre David Montee, who will retire at the conclusion of the 2017-18 academic year, hand-picked the musical Sweeney Todd as his final show at Interlochen Arts Academy. “I’ve wanted to have a go at Sweeney for years, ever since it took my breath away in that original Broadway production years ago,” Montee said. “When I knew I'd be retiring from Interlochen at the end of this year, I thought: ‘Well, it's now or never.’”

“When I saw the original Broadway production of Sweeney Todd in 1980, it changed my entire perspective about musical theatre,” Montee said. “Although I had worked in musical theatre productions, I had been primarily trained as a classical actor, especially in Shakespeare. When I experienced Sweeney Todd, it was a revelation; I realized that all of the emotional grandeur that Shakespearean verse achieved could—with the right book and score—be done just as stunningly in musical theatre. Stephen Sondheim's work was clearly going to be remembered with awe for decades, if not for centuries, to come.”

Sondheim first discovered the tale of Sweeney Todd during a visit to a London theatre in 1973. The story had been a favorite in London’s theatres since 1846, when the first chapters of the serial penny dreadful A String of Pearls appeared in The People’s Periodical. The story achieved such instant popularity that it was adapted into a play before the final chapters had been published.

Sondheim, who had long been interested in Grand Guignol-style stories, was immediately entranced by the play and purchased copies of every published version of the story. He ultimately based his musical adaptation on Christopher Bond’s 1973 play. Bond’s adaptation was unique in that it was one of the first settings of Todd’s tale to emphasize the main character’s psychological distress. Sondheim’s musical further highlights Todd’s psychotic break, underscoring the development of Todd and Lovett’s shared psychosis with two songs: the haunting “Epiphany” and the darkly comic “A Little Priest.”

Sweeney Todd is a historically ambiguous musical: it can fit comfortably in any decade of the nineteenth century. Interlochen’s designers decided to center their production in the 1840s.

The London of the 1840s was experiencing the tail end of the Industrial Revolution: pollution was high, wages were low and disease was rampant. As such, Montee and the designers are crafting a grimy and oppressive environment inspired by horror films and the film noir movement.

Lighting designer Brent Wrobel has selected a pea-green and steely blue color palette to capture the cold and noxious atmosphere of post-industrial London. The oppressive aura will be enhanced by machine-produced fog.

Elinore Loomis’s set design also incorporates an industrial feel, with machinery and a furnace glow as key design elements. Like many Sweeney Todd designers before her, Loomis has opted for a central rotating unit. Loomis’s unit, however, can also be moved up-and-downstage depending on the needs of each scene. The top of the unit features a lever-operated barber’s chair that will launch Todd’s victims through a trapdoor to their demise.

Risa Alecci’s costume design is the classic Sweeney Todd garb with a few twists. Alecci’s Anthony Hope is a hybrid of the romanticized British sailor and the historically accurate uniforms. Her Pirelli will combine the Victorian love of plaid patterns with garish red and orange hues that match the character’s personality. For the beggar woman, Alecci will create a stylish dress—then intentionally soil and destroy it—to create the impression of a formerly wealthy woman who has fallen on hard times. All actors will wear more makeup for Sweeney Todd than for standard theatre performances: Alecci’s design calls for pale skin, gaunt cheekbones and shadowed eyes.

This production of Sweeney Todd is more than the realization of a longtime dream for Montee; it’s also a moving conclusion to his career as an educator. “What gives this process a bit more of a special spark for me is that the young actor who is playing the title role, Orlando Whitcomb-Worden, is the student of a former student of mine, Erin Galligan-Baldwin, who now teaches and directs theatre in Vermont,” he said. “[Galligan-Baldwin] told me that she recommended that Orlando come and do post-graduate work here at Interlochen because of how powerful a force our program was in her own life, back in the early 1990's when theatre at the Academy was right on the verge of growing into what it has become today. It's another ‘full circle’ moment for me, and it makes the entire experience even more special.”

While Montee stages a dark yet emotional Sweeney Todd, Gulshirin Dubash directs a one-of-a-kind Oedipus Rex. Dubash’s Oedipus Rex incorporates many aspects of traditional Japanese Noh theatre while maintaining the integrity of the Greek text.

Noh theatre developed in Japan in the 14th century, and is one of the oldest theatre arts still performed today. A type of musical drama, Noh’s key elements include masks, stylized walking, choreography and a traditional Japanese instrumental ensemble. Noh plays are often derived from the mythology and folklore of Japan.

“I thought about doing Oedipus Rex in the Noh style because Noh is very Greek in form,” Dubash said. “The two felt like they went together.”

Dubash began her Noh training with the Noh Training Project in 2002, and has studied the art for the past 16 years. She joined Theatre Nohgaku in 2008.

While not a true Noh production, Dubash’s Oedipus Rex seeks to stay as close as possible to the Noh style. “I decided that if we are going to do it as a form, we need to make sure that we’re going to adhere to a lot of the principles,” she said.

Some such principles include suriashi and kata. All performers will utilize suriashi, Noh’s characteristic sliding steps, in their movements around the stage. Dubash is also teaching some of the kata—a series of traditional Noh forms or choreography—to the students.

Another Noh element that will be utilized in Oedipus Rex is the mask. “It was really important to me that we use the Noh mask that I have, because nobody gets to see anything like this,” Dubash said. “Noh masks are some of the most beautiful masks you will ever see. The young woman mask that we are using has one particular face—normal and more on the flat side as a carving goes, but it can change into two or three expressions depending on the lighting and movement.”

Dilara Naska, who is cast as Jocasta, will perform in Dubash’s rehearsal Noh mask. As the Noh mask makes speech difficult to impossible, Jocasta is actually double-cast: Fiona Reid plays the second Jocasta and provides a voice for the character.

The production will also incorporate an element common to both the Noh style and the classical Greek theatre: the chorus. In this production of Oedipus Rex, the chorus will be the most modern element. In contrast to the traditional, stationary Noh chorus, the chorus will move about the stage and utilize more experimental or abstract movements. The traditional Noh chant, called utai, will be blended with regular speech into a unique hybrid of styles. The chorus will be dressed in dance-like costumes to maintain the traditional Noh silhouette.

Noh influence is especially evident in the costume and set design for Oedipus Rex. Kyle Blasius is designing the sets, while Candy Hughes is designing the costumes.

Blasius’s set design is very traditional and deeply grounded in Noh. The set dimensions will match the traditional Noh stage exactly. “It should feel like you’re walking into a house that has a Noh stage,” Blasius said. Noh’s traditional corner pillars are also present in Blasius’s design, although the two front pillars will be scaled down in height to facilitate sightlines in Harvey Theatre. Blasius is also paying close attention to detail: he’s selected paint colors that evoke the cypress wood traditionally used in Noh theatres, and has added decorative corner pieces and other authentic Japanese architectural details.

Candy Hughes’ costume designs, like Blasuis’s sets, are deeply Noh-inspired, but also include a few modern touches. The main characters, including Oedipus, Creon and both Jocastas, wear very traditional costumes. Hughes is using authentic patterns to create kimono for the main characters and hakama—a type of loose-fitting pleated pants—for the chorus. Hughes will paint the hakama with intricate designs to add depth and style.

The play’s secondary characters—messengers, guards and the shepherd—comprise a second chorus that Dubash calls the “dying chorus.” Hughes has given the dying chorus a more modern look, blending contemporary clothing pieces with short kimonos made of modern materials. Each member of the dying chorus wears a base layer of charcoal leggings and a gray long-sleeved shirt. Over the base layer, each wears a short kimono that reflects their role in the play; the shepherd, for example, wears a vest made of wool-like fur while the messengers wear denim.

It’s worth noting that these two mainstage productions are in solid company, as this semester’s studio show, A Fire Just Waiting, recently performed in Phoenix Theatre. The play is a modern-day Joan of Arc story based on the music of Ani DiFranco. The work was devised by the cast in collaboration with Creatively Independent, a theatre education organization based in Austinville, Virginia. Creatively Independent co-founder Jess Pillmore began her residency with the Interlochen Theatre Department on Jan. 29 and spent her time working with students on the show. Photos from the production can be found on SmugMug.

Oedipus Rex will be performed on April 20 at 7:30 p.m. and April 21 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. in Harvey Theatre. The matinee on April 21 will include a post-show talk with Dubash, the student performers and the designers. Tickets will go on sale on March 23.

Sweeney Todd will be performed on May 11 at 7:30 p.m. and May 12 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. in Corson Auditorium.

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