Nineteenth century London: Millions of the city’s poor populate the overcrowded slums in back alleys while the privileged and wealthy sleep sound in their homes. Enter the barber Sweeney Todd, arriving home 15 years after being imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit by the crooked Judge Turpin, who coveted the barber’s wife.
Upon learning of how the judge forced himself upon the barber’s wife and adopted his daughter, Todd goes mad and teams up with Mrs. Lovett, a pie-maker who cooks the barber’s victims into her meat pies. His killing spree leads to dozens of victims whose throats are slit, bodies ground up and are served to Mrs. Lovett’s customers.
Just in time for Halloween, the American River College Theatre will be performing Stephen Sondheim’s musical Oct. 12-28 with the accompaniment of an orchestra in the American River Theater. “This is going to be very different from [the Tim Burton directed] version because it’s styled after the Broadway show,” says Jonathan Blum, who’s playing Sweeney Todd in this humorous adaptation.
“It’s just a damn good show. It’s one of my favorites of Sondheim’s,” explains Brianne Hidden-Wise, who will play Mrs. Lovett. “It’s very witty, it’s dark, so it appeals to a lot of people.”
Both Blum and Hidden-Wise are veterans of the college’s theatre department. Blum has been a part of the program for 11 years and performed in more than 30 plays, while Hidden-Wise has been in almost 20 plays during her 10 years in the theatre department.
“The reason I keep doing stuff here is because the production value is really high,” Hidden-Wise says, “and so this is going to be a show to watch. The fact that we have an orchestra is a big deal. A lot of places you go, you don’t get the orchestra.”
Andrew Leggett, who plays Judge Turpin’s right-hand Beadle Bamford, described the play as a collaborative production among all of the fine arts departments. “There’s a high level of musicianship on campus and in the orchestra,” he says, “there are flats and sharps all over the place, time signatures change every measure and all kinds of weird stuff.”
It’s that level of complexity that contributed to “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” winning both the Tony Award for Best Musical (1979) and Olivier Award for Best New Musical (1980), as well as 16 more awards including costume design and individual performances in 1979 alone.
Revenge, love and obsession have always been the play’s central themes, and while that hasn’t changed, all opinions can’t be based on the 2007 film adaptation. “Tim Burton took all the humor out of it,” Hidden-Wise says. “It’s actually pretty funny. It’s dark humor. It’s not like ‘comedy,’ but it’s meant to be uneasy in that you find parts of it funny. It’s more morbid than it is gory.”
While the performance will be short on fake cornstarch blood, it’s shaping up to be an impressive sight. “A lot of [the set] is being built from scratch by AR students and members of the community,” says Barnie Warrick, who will play Pirelli, a rival barber.
The majority of the set is one 10×10 foot four-sided unit, not including the attached staircase that rotates to show four different scenes. An additional scene was built on top as the barbershop where Todd will commit the murders, and from which bodies will slide down and into a separate scene on the ground layer of the set.
“It’s amazing, all the technical aspects to this show, and how much effort and man hours and testing – they’re building the [barber’s] chair from scratch,” Warrick says. The barber chair where the murders take place will spring back and shoot the victims down into the main house unit.
Now the stage is littered with confetti colored tape that signals all of the positions the main centerpiece will be placed during the show, while handheld drills and Queen’s “We Will Rock You” fills the air. On opening night, however, the lights will dim and this same stage will become 19th century London. “It’s a great show, a lot of work is being put into it, and it’s one of the biggest shows ARC has put together,” Hidden-Wise says, “It’ll be wonderful.”