Forget Jack the Ripper. Sweeney Todd’s barber shop of mayhem truly raises the hair on the back of anyone’s neck. The dark, award-winning musical will make its way to Thalian Hall this Wednesday, February 25, as part of Opera House Theatre Company’s season opener.
Sweeney Todd lore originated in the 1800s in the Victorian penny dreadful, “The String of Pearls.” Sweeney, who murders his customers and turns them into meat pies, took his streak of terror to the stage in 1979 in the musical, “Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” With music and lyrics by the iconic legend Stephen Sondheim, and book by Hugh Wheeler, the musical was based on the 1973 straight play by Christopher Bond. Opening on Broadway in 1979 and on West End the next year, the musical took home the Tony for Best Musical and Olivier Award for Best New Musical, among other accolades. Since, it has been turned into the 2007 Tim Burton film, which featured Johnny Depp as Sweeney.
Producer Alice Sherwood quickly approached Ray Kennedy to direct. After the close of last year’s “Evita,” which also was a more contemporary musical, Sherwood thought the talent Kennedy showcased as director of that production would perfectly suit “Sweeney Todd.” As well, Kennedy’s status as a classically trained musician lends its hand to the opera-like style of Sondheim’s score.
The play runs rampant with themes of revenge, as Sweeney Todd—who will be played by Jeff Phillips—seeks to exact vengeance on the judge that banished him from England on trumped-up charges. Phillips will bring a more Broadway-inspired zest to Sweeney, as he grew up listening to the original cast recordings. Though he’s never seen Depp’s performance as Sweeney, he says he will showcase a more weathered-down version of the slaying barber.
“I think the thing about Sweeney is that he’s really of an Old Testament mindset,” Phillips details. “There’s black and there’s white, but not a lot of gray in the world.”
Phillips, who was raised with a fundamentalist Christian ideology, relates to Sweeney, on some level: facing life’s challenges and realizing things aren’t so clear.
Sweeney is aided by Mrs. Lovett (Katherine Vernon), who allows him to set up shop above her meat-pie business because she has a score to settle with the judge as well.
“Revenge never wins,” Kennedy tells. “It consumes you, and, ultimately, it takes over your life.”
Not just a blood bath, Sweeney Todd’s known for its undercurrent love story between Antony (Paul Teal) and Johanna (newcomer Arianna Torello). “The characters are very eccentric and interesting,” Kennedy tells, “but at the heart there is a love story with two young innocents which drives the show.”
Blending comedic elements with a murderous tale of macabre, while also wrestling with the musical format, has proven quite a challenge for the director. Assistant director Jason Aycock has stepped in to fully realize the play’s potential. Together they have crafted choreography, which primarily relies on staging rather than larger-than-life musical numbers. The two previously worked together on showstoppers “Kiss Me, Kate,” “Hairspray,” and “Oklahoma!”
Taking on Sondheim’s compositions and lyrics will be musical director Lorene Walsh. She will bring to life songs like “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” “Pretty Women” and “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir”
“The music is all-consuming,” Kennedy tells. “As one of Sondheim’s greatest scores, it drives so much of the show, and is a very complex counterpoint, [featuring] rich harmonies from a very large and involved ensemble. And, yes, there is comedy. The lyrics are very witty, and when we find humor, we seize upon it.”
Taking place during the 1800s, the English class system largely controls the characters’ lives. It will be apparent in set design, constructed by Terry Collins of Scenic Asylum.
“You were born and a prisoner to your class,” Kennedy tells of the era. “So is the same of the neighborhood in which you live, for the most part.”
The show kicks off this Wednesday and runs through Sunday, March 8.
Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Thalian Hall, 315 Chestnut St.
Wed., Feb. 25- Sun., March 1; Fri. March 6-8, 8 p.m.
Sun. matinees, 3 p.m.