Stage West Community Playhouse takes on what might be its most difficult challenge ever with its Main Stage season opener, composer Stephen Sondheim's thrilling, dramatic, musical masterpiece, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Set in 1846 London, it's the dark tale of Benjamin Barker, who was sent to an Australian prison on trumped-up charges by a lecherous judge to clear the way for the judge to lure Barker's beautiful young wife to his house and rape her.
Now, Barker has returned after 15 years, taken the name of Sweeney Todd, and vows revenge upon the judge and those who helped him. How he gets that revenge — indiscriminate, gruesome murders, cannibalism — would give Elm Street's Freddy Krueger nightmares.
What may give the show's orchestra, chorus and cast nightmares is Sondheim's gorgeous, complex score, with a complicated style that has been compared to that of Bernard Herrmann, who wrote the all-over-the-map scores for Alfred Hitchcock's films. The show is about 80 percent sung-through, as the ensemble sings episodic stanzas of The Ballad of Sweeney Todd that advance the story and fill in the blanks, rather like a Greek chorus.
The musical has been called an opera — indeed, the St. Petersburg Opera, like companies in New York, Houston, Europe, Asia and Australia, is doing the show tonight, Sunday and Tuesday in St. Petersburg — but the majority of critics say that though it has its operatic moments, Sweeney Todd is more at home in a Broadway theatre setting.
Stage West director Barbara Everest, who helmed last season's blockbuster version of Chicago and has won eight HAMIs for direction, cast 22 of the theater's top actors and crew members, including a baker's dozen HAMI Award winners, to tackle the show.
George Dwyer (HAMI for Lancelot in Camelot; Hysterium in Funny/Forum) will play Todd, while Julie Fickley (Abigale in 1776) plays Todd's landlady, Mrs. Lovett, who makes the most unusual meat pies in London, with Todd's help.
Be warned: This tale isn't for the squeamish and is probably too violent and strong for ages 11 and younger, though grown-ups worldwide have flocked to see it at every chance.
Jeffrey Schoonmaker plays young sailor Anthony, who befriends Todd and falls in love with the judge's endangered ward, Johanna (Victoria Primosch, HAMI for Roxy in Chicago), the daughter Todd hadn't known he had.
As Judge Turpin (Stan Kane, HAMI as Neville in Secret Garden) plots to seduce Johanna, with the help of his evil friend, Beadle Bamford (Dalton Benson, HAMIs as Franklin in 1776, Saunders in Lend Me a Tenor, Emcee in Cabaret), Todd plots to murder them.
The story is punctuated by the appearance of a strange, wailing, sexually aggressive Beggar Woman (Patty Villegas, HAMI, Mrs. Shinn in The Music Man), who emphasizes the grim and gritty reality of London streets in that time.
The 13-piece orchestra will be led by HAMI winner Wayne Raymond.
After its Broadway debut in 1979, Sweeney Todd won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book and Best Original Score, and nine Drama Desk Awards, including outstanding Musical, Book, Lyrics and Music.