By Barbara Trainin Blank
Sweeney Todd – who first appeared in serialized popular Victorian fiction in London – was a murderous barber with had no understandable motivation for his crimes.
Along came British writer Christopher Bond, who in 1973 penned the play “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” That in turn inspired Stephen Sondheim to create the musical by the same name six years later.
First Bond and later Sondheim, as well as Sondheim’s collaborator Hugh Wheeler – who wrote the book for the musical – supplied motivation.
Todd was unjustly exiled and comes back seeking revenge against the lecherous judge who framed him and ravaged his young wife. That leads Todd to Mrs. Lovett, a resourceful (and slightly mad) proprietress of a failing pie shop, above which, he opens a new barber practice. Mrs. Lovett’s luck sharply shifts when Todd’s thirst for blood inspires a new ingredient into her meat pies that has the people of London lining up.
Meanwhile, the judge is now lusting for Todd’s daughter, who he wants to marry.
“Sweeney Todd” opened on Broadway in 1979 and in London’s West End a year later – winning the Tony Award for Best Musical and Olivier Award for Best New Musical. It has since had numerous revivals as well as a film adaptation.
The thriller musical is coming to Kensington Arts Theatre, with Hans Dettmar in the title role. Dettmar, who has played such diverse roles in the area as Pontius Pilate in “Jesus Christ Superstar” and Don Quixote in “Man of La Mancha,” is making his KAT debut in “Sweeney Todd.”
“It was the first show I ever did,” Dettmar said. “I love Sondheim. I fell in love with the music and the lyrics. Sweeney Todd is one of those titular characters who has so much to offer – he can be done in so many different ways.”
The challenge for the man in the title role is the “difficult musical and dramatic moments,” especially the transition from a man with reasonable rage to one who becomes a habitual murderer.
In contrast to her co-star, Elizabeth Hester never considered “Sweeney Todd” as one of the musicals she really wanted to do.
But Hester, who is playing Mrs. Lovett, was intrigued by a friend who performed the role many times – and found a challenge of her own.
“I always felt it’s a great role, but that that there was something missing on a deeper level that I never saw another actress do,” she said. “I felt that way even with Angela Lansbury, the original Ms. Lovett, who was considered iconic in the role.”
Often, Hester added, Lovett is played very cute and funny, providing comic relief. “I think she has many more layers than that. Mrs. Lovett is the true villain of the show. She’s crazy over Sweeney Todd and feels in control, but it backfires.”
Hester said she believes she’s “a little bit deliberate and cunning” than other actresses she’s seen.
“Sweeney Todd” at KAT is likely to be a version audience members haven’t seen.
“It’s the version a London theater did recently,” said Craig Pettinati, who is directing the production and was founder of the theater – with only eight actors. A few of them are double-cast.
The original version, and most revivals, include a large ensemble cast.
“I loved the smaller version,” Pettinati said. “I loved it, and found it more challenging to do.”
Stuart Y. Welch is music director.
The director said he also believes the staging concept at KAT is “more in the audience’s face – physically close up to the audience.”
“Sweeney Todd” plays Oct. 26 through Nov. 17, at Kensington Arts Theatre, at Kensington Town Hall, 3710 Mitchell Street, in Kensington. For more information, visit the theater’s website at www.katonline.org.