One of the best ballads ever written for the stage begins thus:
Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd
His skin was pale and his eye was odd
He shaved the faces of gentlemen
Who never thereafter were heard of again
He trod a path that few have trod
Did Sweeney Todd
The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
It is in the streets and playgrounds of London, England where the legend of Sweeney Todd is best remembered.
Anywhere children gather to tell spooky stories, this “Penny Dreadful” legend feeds the delight of the thrill. Todd is, as one Londoner has said, “the bogiest of bogeymen.”
Whidbey Island Center of the Arts introduces island audiences to the greatest of bogeymen when it opens its production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical thriller “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” next Friday. And if you love a good story set to some of the best music ever written for the stage, buy your ticket now.
Sondheim’s 1979 stage musical is based on the 1973 play of the same name by Christopher Bond, in which Todd is reinvented as a tragic character driven by revenge.
The story goes that Benjamin Barker is a middle-class barber married to Lucy Barker, with an infant daughter, Johanna.
The villainous Judge Turpin exiles Barker to Australia on false charges in order to have Lucy to himself.
Barker returns as Sweeney Todd and is informed by the local baker, Mrs. Lovett, that Lucy poisoned herself after Turpin raped her, and that Turpin adopted baby Johanna as his ward. By this time, Johanna has become a young woman and falls in love with the aptly-named sailor Anthony Hope, with whom she plans to elope.
The strange goings-on in Sweeney Todd’s Fleet Street barbershop continue from there.
Director Deana Duncan said the story is an epic tragedy similar to the great tragedies of Shakespeare. Like the characters of King Lear or Hamlet, the play reveals the slow-churning ramifications of the protagonist’s choices which inevitably lead to his downfall.
“I believe Sweeney Todd is a revenger’s tragedy … the violence is really secondary to the motive,” Duncan said.
“Sondheim’s Sweeney is not the object of boos and hisses, but divides the audience’s emotions, for he is both a pitiable creature and an abomination.”
Added to the story of revenge, Sondheim cleverly has combined classic horror with tongue-in-cheek humor, which Duncan said is so well-written into the script, the comedy plays itself.
But unlike in Shakespeare, with this play there is a complex musical score thrown into the mix, and that is the play’s most exacting challenge for the artists.
Duncan said she was pleased when she went through the last round of casting for the play.
Not only does she have some WICA stalwarts back to lend their undeniable talents to the stage, but new faces and voices came upon her, she said, almost like magic.
Members of the Fine family, including Seth, Barbara and son, Jonathan, make their way from Everett each night to add their “fine” voices to the multi-generational ensemble.
New to the Langley stage, too, is Jennings B. Watts, a Nichols Brothers Boat Builders shipfitter by day, and impressive bass voice by night.
With his enthusiastic attitude and his perfect 19th century mutton-chop beard, Watts, Duncan said, is like a child who has discovered a new playground and reminds her of the positivity that goes into creating theater.
Jason Dittmer plays the leading role with an eye to Sweeney Todd’s marginality.
“As an artist, I feel it is important to seek out and bring forward the unusual — the unexpected,” Dittmer said.
“Deana Duncan and our musical directors, Dana Linn and Robert Marsanyi, have created the perfect laboratory for the work that I like to do.”
With an operatic score such as this one, the musical directors had their work cut out for them. But although she is working with mainly non-professional singers, vocal director Linn said she and Marsanyi were lucky to have a great group who persevered through the entire process.
“Sondheim’s music is terrifically difficult … and there are many entrances where the accompaniment is of no help to the voice in a starting pitch, for example, or a song will change key and meter when we least expect it,” Linn said.
“But we hit a turning point … when we solidified as a true ensemble and it became apparent that everyone was equally involved in supporting one another to learn this difficult score. What a joy to work on such a marvelous piece and to share my enthusiasm for it with the production team and the entire cast,” Linn added.
Suzanne Kelman plays Mrs. Lovett, maker of meat pies and lover to Sweeney Todd and the part that Sondheim said was the most difficult to play.
“I am convinced that he wrote that part with an ex-wife in mind,” Kellman said with a smile.
“She is a very complex character and he uses the music to depict that. Difficult time changes, unpredictable rests and singing long complicated phrases very fast.”
Regardless of the unsympathetic nature of Lovett, Kelman said she is a desperate person whom she thinks will strike a chord with audiences.
“She is in her mid-40s — bearing in mind the average age expectancy back then was around 50 — living in poverty, her husband having died 17 years before,” Kelman explained.
“Sweeney and Toby (in a warped way) offer her possibly the last chance at a real family life. What woman hasn’t done more than she thought possible to obtain that? So what if she pops a few bodies in pies? As she says in her own words: ‘Saves a lot of graves, do a lot of relatives favors.’”
Katie Woodzick plays barber Adolpho Pirelli, normally played by a man.
“Pirelli is a totally fearless man, which is a joy as an actor, because really, no choice is too big,” Woodzick said.
Woodzick also lent her musical talents to working with the two young soloists who play Johanna and Anthony, Sommer Harris and Max Cole-Takanikos.
“The best part about working on this show has been helping others with their music. It was a very rewarding experience,” she said.
The excitement is palpable in Dittmer’s voice when he speaks about playing one of the greatest roles ever written for a man in a musical.
“The complexity of the score, the maze of brilliant but difficult lyrics and the emotional scale of this work have been a greater challenge than I had ever dreamed,” Dittmer said.
Beyond the challenges for the actors and musicians, Sweeney Todd is ripe with logistical challenges such as fashioning a trapdoor that drops bodies six and half feet, a barber’s chair engineered from a Yale Drama adaptation of the play, workable bloody razors and a huge meat grinder and oven.
Such macabre set pieces lend themselves to Duncan’s atmospheric intent.
While tackling the feat of directing her first musical production, this production has afforded Duncan the opportunity to pay homage, not only to the original Broadway production, but to certain horror movies she admires such as “Psycho,” “Halloween,” “Saw 1” and “The Ring.”
Duncan said her entire vision for this play was based on her love of the horror genre.
And just like the children of London who revive the stories of this myth with which to entertain and thrill their friends, so Duncan and company invite everyone to be thrilled and attend their tale of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”
Performances will be at South Whidbey High School, Oct. 17 through Nov. 1 at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, plus a 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 23; no performance Friday, Oct. 24.
Tickets range in price from $12 to $20, with discounts available for students and groups. Click here or call the box office at 221-8268 or 800-638-7631.