Kevin Harry is taking a break. The average person with a few minutes to kill during work might grab coffee or sneak in a nap. Perhaps they gather around the microwave and argue about Leonardo Dicaprio’s Oscar chances. But this particular actor is using his break time between rehearsals to talk to a reporter about musical theater. Sweeney Todd in particular.
“This is my all-time favorite musical,” Harry says, and you believe him. How could you not? His enthusiasm is infectious. It seeps through the phone. You feel excited just hearing him retell the moment when he was introduced to the production. His choir director in junior high brought in the original soundtrack for the kids. And even at that early age, Harry could hear the greatness in the musical.
“It is so well written that even if you haven’t seen the show, you knew what was going on,” Harry says. His love of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s brilliant and sinister production is important because from January 23 to February 28th, Harry will be playing the lead role in The Actor’s Express production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
His love and interest in the role were only heightened when director Freddie Ashley asked him about playing the role.
“He (Freddie) said ‘I would like to do the show with you in mind’,” Harry says adding, “In the theater world, that never happens. I took advantage of it. And the rest is history.”
A reporter contacted Ashley to see what it was that made him decide upon Harry for the coveted role.
“Kevin is an exceptionally gifted performer,” Ashley says via email. “His voice has the power to go from tender and emotional to loud and booming very seamlessly. I think he is doing an amazing job exploring the complexities of the character and not just playing him as a series of traits. Sweeney has a complicated psychology and Kevin is really exploring that.”
In fact, Harry is the first to admit to a circuitous journey to the world of theater that brought him to Atlanta and eventually a bevy of gigs and notoriety.
“I wanted to be a hip-hop dancer,” Harry admits without a shred of irony. He toured all over the east coast with a band called Radiant. When the band broke up, another one was formed with one key ingredient missing.
“We couldn’t find a singer,” Harry says. This was one of the pivotal moments that proved to be useful in his life later in the theater. “I had never led a band before and I learned the hard way how to sing in front of a crowd.”
Harry sang in the group and also performed at weddings. Secretly, he had a desire to try theater and acting. He moved to Atlanta and tried the local scene. But he didn’t even have a headshot. It didn’t go well.
Somehow he landed a production in Clarkston, Georgia. A show in which “Nobody showed.” Nobody except a burgeoning agent who was starting her own company. She signed Harry, and he began to get gigs all over Atlanta, in theater, TV and film.
Harry began honing his skills in the triple arts of musical theater, performing in bands at night, doing internships at theaters and auditioning, auditioning, auditioning, auditioning… Replace the word audition with years and you understand the actor’s struggle.
One of the high points of his long climb from training to professional was singing at “Showtime at the Apollo.”
“My wife had to convince me to audition,” Harry recalls. When he did the local audition in Atlanta, “they barely looked up from the table,” so he let it go. But then the producers called him months later. He was shocked and surprised.
“I said, ‘I want to make sure that you really want me. Or am I the guy that is going to get booed’,” Harry says.
He didn’t win.
But he didn’t get booed.
Buoyed by an internal victory of performing in front of one of the most unpredictable audiences ever, Harry returned to Atlanta renewed. He started to see all the things that seemed random before were actually helping him with his journey in the theater. But one mantra has helped him stay humble and be a better performer.
“One of the things I pride myself on is I get into productions where people are ten times better than me,” he says. “There are people in (Sweeney Todd) whose credits are far beyond mine.”
It’s his work ethic and willingness to learn from the best that brought him a lot of great roles and regional attention. Just last fall, local weekly Creative Loafing named Harry Best Male Actor in their annual Best of Atlanta wrap-up issue.
This is not just because he is likable, which he is. It’s because he has weaved a career of playing challenging characters that were not exactly in his wheelhouse, but he added something special to the mix that reviewers and audiences could not deny. He had been lucky enough to play roles that traditionally may not have gone to him. Like Daddy Warbucks in the Atlanta Lyric Theater’s production of Annie. Or the Aurora Theater’s rendition of Les Miserables where he played Javert. And now Sweeney Todd.
Let’s have a real moment. Harry is an African-American actor in a Black Mecca, going into a medium that has a reputation for being “traditional” in casting. Broadway is not called the “Great White Way” for nothing.
“I wish it didn’t matter,” Harry says of race politics in theater. “It’s 2016. It can’t be that hard to think that people can play different roles.”
But this is where Harry’s talent and luck coincide. With Sweeney Todd and the Actor’s Express, the actor was already prepared for interesting choices and surprising production decisions.
“The Actor’s Express tends to push the envelope a bit more,” Harry says. “They understand that when you come to see their shows, you are going to see something you don’t see in other theaters. They are not a paint-by-number theater.”
Ashley once again weighed in on the challenges of casting and what theater companies need to do to bring a wider swath of talent.
“For too long, the theatre has been dominated by white, straight, male points of view,” Ashley says. “We have a responsibility to reflect the rich diversity of the communities we serve. More than “color-blind” casting, I am interested in “color-conscious” casting. That is to say, make diversity a core value in the casting process, not an afterthought.”
And Ashley takes his mission further than just roles for actors.
“Theatres should be producing more plays written by women and writers of color,” Ashley says. “And theatres then have to become more proactive about reaching underserved audiences. You’ll hear a lot of white artistic directors say they don’t produce more work by artists of color because the audience isn’t there. That simply is not true.”
It’s no wonder Harry is a fan ofActor’s Express and, more specifically, of Sweeney Todd’s director, Ashley.
“Freddie pushes the best out of you,” Harry says. “You walk in a Pinto and walk out a Ferrari.”
This is good, because the role of Sweeney Todd is not a cakewalk.
PLOT SYNOPSIS: Framed and banished for a crime he didn’t commit, Benjamin Barker returns to his hometown to avenge his wife who was raped. He assumes the name Sweeney Todd and strikes a macabre deal with his former landlord to kill people. Those people later become pie meat. Oh yeah, there is a lot of singing and harmonies in there, too. But there’s a lot of murdering as well.
How does Harry deal with such complicated and dark material?
“I often joke that if people aren’t afraid of me after the show then I didn’t do my job,” Harry says. Then he realizes that he may have even scared the reporter and adds, “There are things that are really dark – and things that will make you laugh, sometimes uncomfortably. It’s going to entertain regardless of what happens. You will experience something. You will leave a changed person.”