Musical thriller to be held Nov. 4-5 at Victoria Theatre.
The compelling drama and dark comedy of composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim and librettist Hugh Wheeler’s 1979 Tony Award-winning musical masterpiece “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” will be presented by Dayton Opera Nov. 4-5 at the Victoria Theatre.
The musical is based on the Christopher Bond play of the same name, which in turn was based on the 1847 penny dreadful “The String of Pearls.” Having been unjustly exiled to Australia for life by the evil Judge Turpin, Sweeney Todd (a.k.a. Benjamin Barker) escapes incarceration and returns to London circa 1846 to seek revenge. With the cunning assistance of Mrs. Nellie Lovett, a down-on-her-luck Fleet Street pie seller, Sweeney not only reboots his career as a barber but vows to kill his fellow citizens in the process, gleefully approving Mrs. Lovett’s desire to turn bodies into meat pies. In spite of a profitable cannibalistic collaboration, situations ultimately spin out of control, leaving Sweeney horrified.
“Every day there are signs of despair that can move decent people to the extremes,” says John Moore, who is making his Dayton Opera debut as the vengeful, blood-thirsty Sweeney Todd. “Even though Sweeney slits the throats of other people and is maniacal you can still feel sympathy for him. Opera is still a relevant art form because it tells human stories.”
As the savvy, shrewd Mrs. Lovett, Ann Toomey, also making her Dayton Opera debut, is tapping into the character’s comedic charm, which balances Sweeney’s gruesome, malevolent nature. “She’s such a fun character – a scrappy survivor,” says Toomey. “She’s also incredibly intelligent and smart. She also provides the magic of theater, which is allowing the audience to laugh at very serious things.”
Stage director Kathleeen Clawson, Dayton Opera artistic director, echoes Toomey’s sentiments regarding the material’s emotional impact.
“As the audience gathers together with all of their different experiences and worldviews, if we can all laugh at the same things and cry at the same things, if that’s possible, there are still roots for us to find ways to make the world work,” says Clawson. “The music in this show is so great and so complex as well.”
‘Perfect in every possible way’
At a recent rehearsal, Moore and Toomey diligently finessed “A Little Priest,” the brilliantly clever Act 1 finale centered on Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett relishing the devious depths of their partnership. For example, Mrs. Lovett craves the idea of serving “shepherd’s pie peppered with actual shepherd on top.”
“Sondheim’s words are music,” says Toomey. “He uses words in a musical way which enhances the text.”
The vocally strong cast also includes Joseph Lattanzi as Anthony Hope, Flora Hawk as Johanna, Christian Sanders as Tobias Ragg, Ben Brady as Judge Turpin, Amanda Lynn Bottoms as Beggar Woman, Carl Rosenthal as Pirelli, and Logan Wagner as Beadle. An ensemble of singers from the Dayton Opera Chorus will be led by Chorusmaster Jeffery Powell.
Sondheim’s marvelous score, featuring some of the best songs in his illustrious canon, includes “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” “The Worst Pies in London,” “Green Finch and Linnet Bird,” “Johanna,” “Pretty Women,” “Epiphany” and “Not While I’m Around.”
Dayton Philharmonic Artistic Director and Conductor Neal Gittleman fondly recalls seeing the original Broadway production of “Sweeney Todd.” He immediately knew he wanted to conduct the piece and is pleased to finally have the opportunity to do so after 44 years.
“Everything in this show is perfect in every possible way,” says Gittleman. “It’s a great show that works in different ways whether large, as on Broadway, or intimate, as in the Human Race Theatre Company’s production a few years ago. And every single person involved with this show is pumped about doing it and it comes out in the work, which is so exciting.”
In addition to the full orchestra led by Gittleman, the production will include choreography by Dayton Ballet Artistic Director Brandon Ragland, lighting design by Molly Tiede, costume coordination by Lyn Baudendistel, wig/makeup design by Thomas Venditelli and Cass Brake, and props by John Lavarnway. Rather than the dark color palette typical in “Sweeney Todd” productions, this production, originally created for Des Moines Metro Opera, features colorful sets by R. Keith Brumley and costumes by Jonathan Knipscher inspired by Victorian Era theater posters that deliberately belie the dark underbelly of the plot.
When Clawson determined the Dayton Opera season, which opened with “Die Fledermaus” in September and will continue with “Tosca” in April and the Opera Star Recital with Will Liverman in June, she knew “Sweeney Todd” would be a great addition because she deems the piece a true masterwork. She also views the show as incredibly timeless and relevant.
“Great works of art speak to you no matter what,” she says. “For example, if you’re grieving the loss of somebody, you’ll experience this piece in a certain way. Opera is telling stories through music and ‘Sweeney Todd’ is truly remarkable.”