“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is a musical with an edge, and it’s not just the straight-edge razor the Victorian-era barber uses to avenge the many wrongs he suffered.
Stephen Sondheim’s Tony Award-winning music and lyrics are demanding and challenging, said Elizabeth Waterbury, music director for the show that opens Friday at the Shasta College Theater.
“When the show was written (it opened in 1979), we were just starting the era of synthesized music. It was just assumed there would be a live pit orchestra and all the sound elements were expected to be acoustic and live—especially the singers. Everybody has to sing at the top of their game,” Waterbury said.
Musicians can’t put it into cruise control either. “Sweeney Todd” calls for a lot of acoustic instruments, including flutes, oboes and even English horns, Waterbury said. The 27-piece orchestra also features a full complement of strings, including cellos, double bass and violins.
Assisting Waterbury will be former Shasta College students John Maich (concertmaster) and Michael Eby (first violin), both of whom are studying violin and have returned to Redding for the summer.
Waterbury also is happy to welcome another returning north state student, U Prep graduate Rebecca Gilbert, who is on a summer break from the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in Los Angeles and will sing the part of Johanna, Sweeney Todd’s daughter. “She’s got a beautiful voice,” Waterbury said. Theater fans may remember Gilbert from her performance as Wendy in the 2015 Cascade Theatre production of “Peter Pan.”
Because the musical is so demanding, Waterbury said she was expecting some difficulties in recruiting orchestra members, but it turned out plenty of musicians were eager to take on the challenge. “We started working on it even before rehearsals started, really digging into the music,” Waterbury said.
Blake Fisher, another north state talent, has been cast as Anthony Hope, Sweeney Todd’s friend, who falls in love with Johanna. Waterbury said audiences are sure to enjoy Fisher’s singing of “Johanna,” one of the more recognizable tunes in the show. “He does a beautiful job with that.”
Waterbury and Gregory Thorson, the director, offered high praise for Brian Bisetti, the actor, composer and musician who takes on the role of Sweeney Todd, the deranged barber who returns to London after a 15-year exile to take revenge on the corrupt judge who ruined his life and shattered his family.
Thorson said Bisetti is able to highlight the bits of dark humor scattered within Sondheim’s script. “I think Brian is a very talented and comedic actor. He was fantastic in ‘The Producers’ last year. To have an actor with those comedic skills in it is wonderful,” Thorson said.
“He’s helping us to explore the humorous aspects of the show,” Bisetti said of Thorson’s leadership. “On one hand, there are some really horrible, ghastly things happening, but at its core, the show wants to be a very dark comedy. We’re trying to play up the funny parts so when we come to them, they really land.”
Bisetti, who played the flamboyant director Roger De Bris in last summer’s “The Producers,” said he’s enjoying his Sweeney Todd character. “I enjoy that he’s not just angry. Sweeney hurts. The things that happened to him … this man’s absolutely a victim. He was wronged and abandoned by the class system of that time. The things that happened to him are the saddest things I’ve heard,” Bisetti said. “Getting to explore that anger and sadness has been quite a discovery.”
In addition to Bisetti, “Sweeney Todd” features Jessica Cox as Todd’s equally deranged landlord; Jacob McDuffey as Toby; Dalton Fitzgerald as the corrupt Judge Turpin; Brady Hannigan as The Beadle; Taylor Husted as the Beggar Woman; and Don Potter as Adolfo Pirelli and Jonas Fogg.
Eddie Sadler returns as the lighting director, with some $13,000 in robotic lighting now at his disposal. Hillary Rogerson is in charge of choreography; David Fraser designed the set; Hilary Fahey gets costume design credit; Tim Dye built the set; and Mat McDonald designed the hair and makeup.
“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” opens at 7 p.m. Friday with additional evening performances on Saturday and July 13-15 and 20-22. 2 p.m. matinees are set for Sunday and July 16 and 23. Tickets are $13, general; $11, students. Visit www.shastacollege.edu or call (530) 242-7573.