Spotlight on Mrs. Lovett: As Visalia’s premier baker of ‘meat’ pies, can she add Twitch Streamer to the menu?

I‘ve done hundreds of these Q&A interviews for The Munro Review, but never before have I had an interview subject write original lyrics for me.

Until now.

That was my experience with Phae Elfont, a newcomer to the local theater scene. She plays Mrs. Lovett in the Visalia Players production of “Sweeney Todd,” which runs through May 28 at the Ice House Theatre. Read on and discover a new verse for “A Little Priest.”

Pictured above: Phae Elfont and Joseph Ham star in ‘Sweeney Todd.’  Photo: Visalia Players

Q: Welcome to the central San Joaquin Valley theater scene! Let me guess: People keep asking you why you moved to Visalia voluntarily, as if the only rational explanations would be that 1) you were drafted and then assigned to Lemoore Naval Air Station; 2) your elderly grandparents have promised you their multimillion-dollar estate but only if you establish residence in Tulare County; or 3) you’re Natasha Lyonne’s character in “Poker Face” and are on the run from Vegas thugs. So what’s your official reason?

A: Ha! Yeah, you’re right. Every time I tell somebody we moved here on purpose, I get a lot of crazy looks and follow-up questions. But it’s a pretty simple answer. My fiancé and I, along with our roommates – our chosen family – wanted to be close to the mountains, take advantage of the lower cost of living, and honestly just have some peace and quiet. We came from Orlando, FL, which felt chaotic and frenzied, especially in the themed entertainment world. There’s not a whole lot of that in Visalia, which is exactly what we wanted.


And I’m on the run from Vegas thugs. And I’m also Natasha Lyonne.

Q: Tell us about your Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd.” There are lots of amazing interpretations of the role from throughout the years, from Patti Lupone to Imelda Staunton. What is it like to play a role with such pedigree?

A: I think my interpretation of Lovett is unique in that she’s less bumbling and more calculated. She knows she’s persuasive and uses that to her advantage. And I think by the end of Act II, she realizes she’s taken that manipulative cruelty too far, but she’s already in too deep. My performance is inspired by all the incredible actors who blazed the Lovett trail, but I admit that I’m heavily influenced by LuPone, Staunton, and Christine Baranski. The three of them lean into that delicious cruelty in a way that’s almost alluring, which I think is part of what makes Mrs. Lovett such a well-loved role despite the fact that she’s objectively not a good person.

This probably sounds trite, but playing Mrs. Lovett is an absolute dream come true and little Phae is totally freaking out. I was a shy kid, so naturally, my mom stuck me in theater camp to combat that. Joke’s on her, because I’m still shy, but I’m also an actor so I’m better at faking it. But another byproduct of being thrown into performing at six years old was developing no other interests and spending every spare moment thinking about, learning about, and immersing myself in theater. Several years later, I watched the pro-shot 2001 concert production of “Sweeney Todd” starring George Hearn and Patti LuPone, which began my lifelong love affair with the music of Stephen Sondheim.

Q: If you updated the time period of “Sweeney Todd” to present day, what three occupations would you add to the song “A Little Priest”?

A: Social Media Influencer, Twitch Streamer, and Life Coach. I feel like there are a lot of easy jabs baked into those…

“Life Coach is rather nice,
But it won’t entice,
As it might make you drowsy
Since it’s full of lousy advice!”

Q: This is your first experience with the Visalia Players. Tell us a little about the production.

A: Honestly, I couldn’t have asked for a better first experience. The entire cast and crew has been so welcoming, and I feel beyond lucky to be making stage magic with such kind, talented people. And the creative team is unbelievable, with Kelly Ventura at the helm as our Director, along with Hugh Munro Neely as our Music Director and James Alves as our Choreographer. I really love the way Kelly fosters a deeply collaborative environment. He ardently loves this show, and that passion totally bleeds (haha) into his direction, which empowers us to take risks and really dig into the meat (hahaha) of the material.

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Q: You are paired with Joseph Ham as Sweeney. He’s very familiar to Valley audiences. What has it been like working with him?

A: One of the greatest joys of this entire process has been working with Joe. He’s the best scene partner on the planet – so giving of spirit. Not all actors have the capacity to be as generous as Joe is on stage. He’s always looking out for me and our castmates. He makes intelligent choices that make everyone else look better. He’s absolutely brilliant. And in my humble opinion, Joe’s performance alone is worth the price of admission. I sincerely hope that we’ll get the opportunity to work together again, but even if we don’t, I know I’ve made a friend for life.

Q: Back to the Florida thing, and all joking aside, the state is very much in the news these days for political reasons. Did that have an impact on your decision to move to California?

A: Absolutely. We’d been planning to leave Florida for a while, but as the political landscape became progressively more frightening, we realized we probably needed to get out sooner than we’d initially thought. I’m a nonbinary queer person, and I’m proud of that. But it’s a pretty terrifying time to be openly queer in Florida. I mean, let’s be real. It’s scary to be openly queer anywhere. But it takes a toll on your health to live in a state led by people who actively campaign to strip you of your basic human rights. I miss my family and my friends, and I worry for them daily. But I don’t miss much else. Suffice it to say, I’m glad to be in California.

Q: You worked for theme parks in Orlando, including five years as a “stage manager” at Universal Studios. What did you do there?

A: It’s so hard to answer this question because I did a whole lot of everything all the time! Mainly I managed seasonal events like Halloween Horror Nights, Grinchmas, and Mardi Gras, but I also had the opportunity to work in daily operations with the teams at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Diagon Alley, DreamWorks Destination, and a handful of others. Every day was different, but it was definitely nice to have the variety.

Q: You call yourself a “tiny baby Sondheim nerd.” His lyrics are so amazing. What is it like to live inside his songs during the run of this show? Is there a particular lyric from the show that resonates more than any other?

A: Singing Sondheim’s music every day for the last three months has filled my soul in ways I can’t express. It’s a gift I can never repay. His music feels like home, and I always marvel at his ability to create art that speaks so profoundly to so many people. I miss his presence on earth like I’d miss an old friend, but his impact is eternal.

Personally, the lyric in the show that resonates most deeply for me comes from “Green Finch and Linnet Bird,” sung by Johanna:

“Green finch and linnet bird,
Nightingale, blackbird,
Teach me how to sing.
If I cannot fly…
Let me sing.”

Q: What overarching message do you take from “Sweeney Todd”?

A: Revenge is merely love transmuted. In the end, love still conquers all.

Q: Anything to add?

Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me, Donald! I’m excited to meet some of your bleeders — I mean, readers — on Fleet Street. We’re dying to serve you!

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

Comments (1)

  • Roger Christensen

    Phae’s Mrs Lovett and Joe Hamm’s Sweeney Todd were definitely worth a drive to Visalia! (And this was a very amusing interview!)


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