Capitol City thickens ‘Sweeney’ atmosphere

Steampunk elements will give bloody show high-tech spin.

By Howard Pousner hpousner@ajc.com

Capitol City Opera Company leaders were tossing out ideas last fall for a production strong enough to launch the company’s 30th anniversary season when artistic director Michael Nutter mentioned he had always wanted to stage “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”

Costume designer Pamela Cole piped up that she had a colleague who recently had designed the Stephen Sondheim show at Alabama’s Jacksonville State University in a steampunk style, and perhaps the Atlanta company could rent the costumes.

That was music to the ears of Nutter, who runs the semiprofessional troupe on only $120,000 a year. But he had an important question.

“I was like, ‘Steampunk’ — so what would that be?’ ” he recalled with a laugh. “Now I’m embarrassed that I didn’t know.”

If the phrase leaves you similarly drawing blanks, you can discover for yourself starting Friday as Capitol City Opera opens its 2014 season with a fully staged, steampunk-inspired “Sweeney Todd” at Oglethorpe University’s Conant Performing Arts Center.

Growing out of contemporary science-fiction writing that embraced Victoriana, steampunk, simply put, is

about fusing old and new, the mundane and the exotic. Whether played out on the page or as a mode of dress, it usually involves melding the innovation of modern technology with a mid- to late-19th-century design aesthetic.

One significant example of how that will translate in Capitol City’s production is that the three large, circular platforms that comprise the “Sweeney Todd” set will evoke giant gears and spurt steam as they move. Clad in overalls and goggles, crew members will look like factory workers as they rotate the platforms. CO2 canisters will perform the role of producing a steam release-type sound.

The costumes from Jacksonville State University, supplemented by Cole, incorporate metallic details. Female characters wear corsets on the outside of blouses along with boots and leather hats. One chorus member dons a pith helmet sporting binoculars.

“We’re pushing the limits, so don’t expect a large set on ‘The Merry Widow,’” Nutter said half-jokingly of the company’s planned September production. “I’ve blown the budget on this one, definitely.”

“Sweeney Todd” naturally lends itself to steampunk style. The Victorian London-set drama spins the sordid tale of a barber who returns to extract bloody revenge after a judge falsely accuses him of a crime, exiles him to prison and then ravages the innocent man’s family.

In fact, director Tim Burton gave his 2007 film adaptation starring Johnny Depp plenty of steamy swagger.

It turns out that Atlanta is particularly hospitable to steampunk. Last year, Movoto.com, a real estate blog, declared us the “most steampunk city in the nation.”

It was one of those rankings that seemed a little less than scientific, with criteria from the numbers of salvage yards to paranormal societies crunched together. Still, it would be rude by any measure to argue with being No. 1, right?

Somehow the survey neglected to mention perhaps the city’s biggest booster of the aesthetic: Dragon Con, the annual sci-fi/pop culture convention where steampunkers proudly parade down Peachtree Street and through convention hotel atriums.

Cole, Capitol City’s costumer, in fact judged Dragon Con’s costume contest last summer in which the winners included a “Steampunk Cyberman” and a “Steampunk Iron Gentleman.”

In the spirit of things, the opera company is inviting audience members to wear steampunk costumes to the theater.

Steampunk’s trendiness may vaporize eventually, but Nutter believes “Sweeney Todd’s” story is enduring.

“I think the cruelty of mankind continues no matter how civilized we become,” the artistic director said. “If you watch what’s happening in Uganda, Ukraine and Venezuela, people are still struggling for their rights and for what they believe is right. The hope is of course one day we might hit that ‘Star Trek’ (ideal), speaking of Dragon Con, where everyone respects everyone.”