Cedar Rapids – Theatre Cedar Rapids has a long history of producing good-natured and family-friendly musicals, including December’s White Christmas.
Sweeney Todd is not one of them.
“It’s not that there’s anything like nudity or bad words,” says director Leslie Charipar. “But the subject matter is very adult, and it’s scary. Kids will have nightmares about Daniel Kelchen.”
Kelchen is the actor playing the murderous title role in Sweeney Todd, a musical that’s earned fame (and a cult following) thanks to its bloody reputation, multiple productions on Broadway, the fame of its composer Stephen Sondheim, and more recently, the Tim Burton movie starring Johnny Depp. It’s even become a pop-culture staple, getting performed as a rather shocking grade-school pageant in the Ben Affleck movie Jersey Girl.
Not sure what Sweeney Todd is about? The show lets you know from the very first lyric:
“Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd
His skin was pale, his eye was odd
He shaved the faces of gentlemen
Who never thereafter were heard of again
He trod a path that few have trod
Did Sweeney Todd
The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”
There’s more to the story than that, of course. There’s suspense. Revenge. Romance. Beautiful music and some wickedly-funny wordplay.
But everyone remembers the blood.
“Last season we had some great exciting titles like The Producers and RENT, and I think that’s what Sweeney Todd does for this season,” Charipar says. “It’s one of those big, recognizable, holy-cow-how-are-they-going-to-do-that kinds of titles. We’ve never done it before, so it seemed like a fun challenge.”
Here’s the story in a nutshell: At the start of the show, Sweeney (played by Daniel Kelchen) has just returned to 19th century London ,15 years after being sent to prison by a corrupt judge (Michael Cervantes) who’d had eyes for Sweeney’s wife Lucy. To get rid of him, the Judge had Sweeney — who worked as a barber — framed on a trumped-up charge.
Sweeney learns from Mrs. Lovett (Piper Pack-Smith) that once he was removed, the Judge went after Lucy, who was driven to poison herself as a result. Sweeney’s daughter Johanna was then adopted by the Judge. Enraged, Sweeney vows revenge, with a simple plan: He will re-establish his barbershop under a different name, lure the Judge and his ally The Beadle (Nick Williams) as customers, and kill them.
Sweeney’s plan almost works, until it’s accidentally foiled by the arrival of Anthony (Aaron Brewer), who has fallen in love with the now-adult Johanna (Elizabeth Simon). Sweeney is so furious that he extends his thirst for vengeance to all of London, vowing to kill indiscriminately until he finally has his revenge.
Of course, that’s when Mrs. Lovett (who knows Sweeney’s plan, and who has a shortage of meat for the pies in her bakery) suggests a rather resourceful use for the bodies that are starting to pile up ...
And it gets demented from there.
Charipar stresses one key thing about Sweeney: Yes, it’s dark and scary, but it’s also funny. Very, very funny.
“The character of Mrs. Lovett is hilarious,” she says. “There’s songs like ‘A Little Priest’ and ‘God That’s Good.’ Pirelli, one of Sweeney’s rival barbers, is a hoot.
“I think that the absolute failure of this piece is if it takes itself too seriously,” she adds. “There are moments where Sweeney himself contributes to the comedy of the thing. There’s a tendency to play Sweeney on one angry note, but Daniel is mixing it up, finding places where he can be likeable and funny. Which I’m intrigued by, because it really screws you up when you start liking the guy who’s killing everybody.”
Those who have seen Sweeney before may notice some major changes between TCR’s interpretation and productions of the past.
“It’s kind of a deconstruction, from a design standpoint,” Charipar says. “Though the set pieces are big and neat, they’re simple. They continuously change in function throughout the show. I love that idea.
“We’ve sort of been playing with the idea of ‘vaudeville of the grotesque,’ Charipar added. “Footlights play into the design, and so does Victorian makeup ... We’re sort of distorting things. The show verges on melodrama anyway, so we wanted to make it feel almost otherworldly. It’ll still be gritty, but in a really odd sort of way.”
That element of simplicity and deconstruction also applied to the handling of the music. Music Director Janelle Lauer and Assistant Music Director Ben Schmidt have worked to pare down instruments wherever possible, so that the music would support the emotion of the story without overwhelming it.
“There’s always something a little creepy and more powerful about a single voice coming through,” Charipar says. “We wanted to pare this show down to its essence and highlight the story and the voices as a bare-bones rendering of the show.”
That said, Charipar says the “wow” factor is very much a part of this production of Sweeney Todd. As an example, she points to the collapsible barber’s chair that Sweeney uses to dispose of his victims. When Sweeney hits the switch, audiences will see the actors drop 20 feet.
“The chair will seem very dangerous to the audience, and I think that’s exciting,” Charipar says. “I am so thrilled to finally be bringing Sweeney Todd to the TCR stage. I really, really hope our audiences have as much fun at this show as we are.”
Sweeney Todd runs March 4-26, with shows at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays as well as 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 17 and at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, March 13 and 20. The show is sponsored by RBC Wealth Management. For tickets, call (319) 366-8591, visit the box office at 102 Third St. SE or go online at www.theatrecr.org.
This show contains violence and mature subject matter. It is not recommended for children.