Following the success of such musicals as “Les Miserables,” “Sister Act” and this summer’s “Beauty and the Beast,” the Waco Civic Theatre will stage a 19th-century London tale of throat-slitting revenge, love amid bodily peril, madness, assault, political corruption and meat pies with a tasty secret ingredient.
It’s a musical, too.
“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” the 1979 Tony Award-winning musical by composer Stephen Sondheim and playwright Hugh Wheeler, opens a three-weekend run Friday at the Waco Civic Theatre and WCT executive director Eric Shephard, the musical’s director, said it’s a challenge for any community theater, but one gladly accepted by the WCT.
Its Sondheim score marries lyrical wit to music that frequently changes tempo, meter and rhythm, with orchestral accompaniment sometimes at odds with the singing onstage. The staging’s technical demands include a multilevel pie shop (with a basement and a barber’s room upstairs) plus the logistics of serial murder or, as Shephard muses, “what do you do with the bodies?” Then there’s the issue for a community theater of finding the singing and acting talent needed to pull off a Sondheim musical.
All that adds up to a major reason why the WCT chose to undertake “Sweeney Todd:” pulling it off keeps the theater growing its talent pool and expanding its audiences. “It’s a huge challenge, but an interesting and enticing one,” he said.
The musical’s storyline, drawn from a melodramatic 19th century tale of urban horror, follows Sweeney Todd (Seth Sutton), a London barber formerly known as Benjamin Barker, who returns to the city after years in an Australian penal colony and as a sailor.
Todd schemes murderous revenge on the corrupt, lustful Turpin (Bill Selby), who sent to him prison to take advantage of his beautiful wife Lucy and who has adopted Todd’s young daughter Johanna (Jennalee Brummel) as his ward. Todd takes up with a failing pie-shop operator and landlord Mrs. Lovett (Kelly McGregor), who realizes his past and sees opportunity, both economic and romantic, as she joins his plotting.
Throw in Todd’s fellow sailor Anthony (Tim Griffin), who falls for Johanna; an orphan Toby (Nathaniel Hejduk), who becomes protective to Lovett as he helps in the pie shop; a fraudulent rival barber and tooth-puller Adolfo Pirelli (Justin Kroll); Turpin’s corrupt assistant Beadle Bamford (Jacob Florez); and a mysterious, half-mad beggar woman (Cathy Hawes) who lurks around the shop, and you have the basic elements to drive a tale that mingles dark drama, murder, cannibalism and a surprising thread of humor.
As with “Les Miserables,” “The Great Gatsby” and “Sister Act,” “Sweeney Todd” attracted new talent specifically interested in the production, the WCT director noted. The theater has supplemented that onstage talent by seeding Todd’s growing number of victims with McLennan County politicians and news media personalities.
As they did with “Les Miserables,” singers from the Central Texas Choral Society provide a vocal core for the musical. In fact, Shephard said revisiting that collaboration with the choral ensemble and its director David Guess, was a major factor in tackling “Sweeney Todd.” “We wanted to recapture a little of that magic,” he said.
Guess heads “Sweeney Todd’s musical direction and said that while both musicals are largely sung throughout, much like opera, “Sweeney Todd” has more linking dialogue and staging to integrate with the music. Fourteen CTCS singers form much of the musical’s backing ensemble while a nine-piece orchestra with string, brass and woodwinds handles its instrumentation.
Coordinating the two is a challenge — “the accompaniment doesn’t support the melody line much,” Guess noted — and Sondheim’s score is a demanding one for both singers and players. “There are pages where every measure has a different time signature . . . plus it’s on the edge harmonically and rhythmically,” he said.
And then there’s the bodies issue. When they start falling — theatrically and not gorily — they end up close to the space occupied by the string bass player.
Joining Shephard and Guess on the production side are scenic designer Richard Leslie, lighting designers Chris Arnold and Todd Martin, costumer Sue Morrisey and choreographer Ashley Woodard.
Parents might want to think about taking children elementary school-aged and younger due to the thematic material, but both Shephard and Guess point out the violence is more suggested than graphic and there’s a dose of humor, albeit dark, delivered throughout.
“It’s such a rich piece of theater . . . and not run-of-the-mill community theater fare,” said Shephard.