Originally Published: June 8, 2011 10:04 p.m.
Audiences are bound to laugh hysterically one moment and gasp in surprise the next when the curtain goes up on "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" this week on Prescott Fine Arts Association's main stage.
Musical thriller "Sweeney Todd," a master work by American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, is a murderous tale of "barber-ism" and culinary crime.
Benjamin Barker is a successful late-19th-century barber with a wife and baby daughter. A crooked judge covets the barber's wife and, on trumped-up charges, sends Barker to a penal colony. When Barker returns to London under the alias Sweeney Todd 15 years later, he finds that the nefarious judge has discarded his wife, who he is led to believe committed suicide. Even worse, the lecherous judge has made Barker's daughter his ward.
Sweeney Todd seeks revenge and the story escalates from there into a chilling, suspenseful musical that has a great sense of fun, mixing intense drama with funny moments of dark humor.
Linda Miller, a performer of 20 years on the PFAA stage, plays the role of Mrs. Lovett who, as she says, "has a moral compass that's out of whack."
Mrs. Lovett is the proprietress of a pie shop on Fleet Street, and though she wants to be married and legitimize her relationship with Mr. Sweeney, "she has no problem making people into meat pies," Miller said. "She wants her business to do well." And, even though the ingredients of Mrs. Lovett's pies are macabre, she's "horrified" over suspicions of the contents of her competitor's pies, since "neighborhood cats are missing."
Miller's character is "likeable" and lends "comic relief to the play, a counterpoint to Mr. Todd's darkness," she said. "I love the role and wonderful music."
Director Don Langford, who has directed or performed in PFAA productions for decades, finds the challenge of producing Sweeney Todd more exhilarating than plays that offer a message.
Sweeney Todd "is not often produced because it is such a difficult, challenging piece," Langford said, adding that the musical roles in the play have been in intense rehearsals for five months, under the direction of Linda Sheehan.
"We have been very fortunate to have some professionally trained voices, as well as some very talented upcoming talent," Langford said. "It's a chance to showcase some of these people."
Once such voice is that of Darrell Rowader, who plays Sweeney Todd's nemesis, Judge Turpin.
"It's a tall tale," Rowader said of Sweeney Todd's thirst for revenge, with Mrs. Lovett as his accomplice. When he lures the judge to his barber chair and fails in his attempt to let his shaving tool slip across his throat in a fatal sweep, he takes his vengeance out on all his unsuspecting customers, who end up, of course, in Mrs. Lovett's meat pies.
For Rowader, who has an operatic background, his role is compelling because "all the emotions of an opera are measured out by the music of the composer. You are an extension of the composer," he said, and the play is "almost like an opera."
Cast as Sweeney Todd, Dino Palazzi said playing this character is "a tremendous experience, a dream role."
When he was a young actor, he and his friends found the play intriguing. Today, "old colleagues of mine are eating their hearts out" that he's the lead in this "remarkable" production.
"To me, he is heartbroken and devastated," Palazzi said. "On a higher level, he sees himself as an avenging angel. Sweeney has no life - the life he came back to doesn't exist."
The role is "emotionally exhausting," Palazzi said, but it is his chance to "play a character that loves so strongly that passion, that tremendous sense of loss he feels drives him to desperate acts and pure vengeance.
"He doesn't stand to gain anything."
"Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" opens at 7:30 tonight, with evening performances Friday and Saturday and June 16, 18, 23, 24 and 25, and 2 p.m. matinees on June 12 and 19. An audience talk-back will follow the June 12 matinee.
Ticket prices are $19 for adults and $15 for ages 12 and under for evening performances, and $12 for adults and $10 for ages 12 and under for matinees.
Tickets are available by calling 445-3286 or emailing email@example.com. The PFAA theatre is located at 208 N. Marina St., Prescott.