TheatreLab Dayton presents dark, twisted ‘Sweeney Todd’

Acclaimed Stephen Sondheim musical slated Oct. 20-29 at PNC Arts Annex.

Spooky season continues as composer Stephen Sondheim and librettist Hugh Wheeler’s 1979 Tony Award-winning musical masterpiece “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is slated Oct. 20-29 at the PNC Arts Annex courtesy of TheatreLab Dayton.

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.

“This show is brilliant,” said TheatreLab artistic director Mackensie King, who helms the production. “Sondheim just doesn’t write lyrics – he writes moments. His shows are a gift for actors. I will always be a fan of challenging our actors and actresses with Sondheim material, which in itself is challenging and rewarding.”

Credit: KNACK PHOTO + VIDEO

Credit: KNACK PHOTO + VIDEO

Last season, King staged an excellent presentation of “Company,” Sondheim’s groundbreaking depiction of friendship and marriage in New York City in the early 1970s. She’s been a fan of “Sweeney Todd” for as long as she can remember but in recent years came to the realization it could be freshly reinterpreted.

“I’ve always loved ‘Sweeney’ and its darkness,” said King. “I want to turn it on its head. I love taking old material and giving it new life. So, for me, and due to everything that’s going on in the world, ‘Sweeney’ actually feels very poignant. The show talks about power, the powers that be, and what power does and how it corrupts. There are nods to the past and the present because unfortunately things are still the same. So, I really wanted to lean into themes of corruption of power, homelessness and the treatment of women, which are all prevalent today.”

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Pondering and planning

TheatreLab Dayton executive director Philip Drennen, who staged the troupe’s lively “La Cage aux Folles” last month and memorably appeared as the supportive David in the aforementioned “Company,” will play the demanding titular role. He views the opportunity as an exciting if daunting departure from previous assignments.

“Sweeney is such an iconic role, and so many great actors have played the role, and it also goes to a place I haven’t been on stage before,” explained Drennen. “It took a lot of preparation, especially finding similarities between myself and Sweeney, which sounds weird but it’s important to find empathy in the character. I’m able to sympathize with trauma and feeling lonely and out of place.”

Signature numbers from Sondheim’s marvelous score include “The Worst Pies in London,” “Johanna,” “Pretty Women,” “A Little Priest” and “Not While I’m Around.” In particular, the haunting “My Friends,” sung by Sweeney when reunited with his razors, is a pivotal number Drennen found meaningful and motivational.

“‘My Friends’ kind of cracked the code for me,” he recalled. “It reveals Sweeney as a creature of habit, someone who had rituals, which has now gone to a murderous extreme. The song provides insight into who he is and helps guide the journey.”

“Philip can make characters feel so true and he is bringing many nuances to the role so it’s not just about revenge,” added King. “And he has such a warm tenor. What we hear so often helps us decide what we’re seeing. So, I think the audience hearing the warmth in Philip’s voice will help them forgive Sweeney a little bit, which is important. We are (offering) a journey of forgiveness and sympathy toward Sweeney.”

Credit: KNACK PHOTO + VIDEO

Credit: KNACK PHOTO + VIDEO

The principal cast includes Melissa Hall as Mrs. Lovett, Aidan McKeon as Anthony Hope, Devon Fruscione as Johanna, Justin King as Judge Turpin, Skyler McNeely as Beadle Bamford, Garrett Young as Tobias, Brennan Paulin as Pirelli and Madeline Stern as Beggar Woman. Ensemble members include AJ Breslin, Jamal Cann, Brooke Cierra, Abby Hoggatt, Derick Latimer, Lily Meyers (who also portrays Tobias at matinees), Joel Parece and Meghan Rupper.

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Fanning the flames of vengeance

King’s vision for the show twists the villainy in the direction of Mrs. Lovett, a widow hiding the truth while infatuated with Sweeney and his gruesome aims.

“The title of the show is ‘Sweeney Todd’ and the action circles around him but Mrs. Lovett is the driving force,” King explained. “It makes it a more compelling story. Art isn’t comfortable and it shouldn’t be comfortable. It might be a controversial choice and people might not see it in the same way as me, but we’re spinning ‘Sweeney’ in a way it hasn’t been seen before.”

Credit: KNACK PHOTO + VIDEO

Credit: KNACK PHOTO + VIDEO

Above all, King reiterates the musical’s impact as a resonant cautionary tale.

“Anyone could have been Sweeney because he was a victim of circumstance,” she said. “Anybody we interact with on a daily basis may be reacting or doing things because of the circumstances with which they were handed, which speaks (to the) humanity of the show considering how divided the world is today.”

HOW TO GO

What: “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”

Where: PNC Arts Annex, 46 W. Second St., Dayton

When: Oct 20-29; 7:30 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; and 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays

Cost: $28-$43

Tickets: Call 937-228-3630 or visit daytonlive.org

FYI: Patrons are reminded of the following trigger warnings: blood/gore, death/murder, extreme sexual innuendos and a strobe light effect.

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