“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is a complicated mix: funny, dark, mysterious, gory and ultimately tragic, with multi-faceted lead characters.
In other words, it is not a musical easily brought to the stage, but it is the one that is about to open at The Highwood Theatre.
“You have to manage a fine line between campy and scary,” said Matthew Nicola, Highwood’s artistic director.
“Sweeney Todd,” arguably Stephen Sondheim’s masterwork, is a story of violence and revenge, but also hope. It is based on a non-musical play by Christopher Bond, which is based on a lurid British tale about a barber who goes on a killing spree.
The show opened on Broadway in 1979, winning the Tony Award for Best Musical.
Both Bond’s play and the musical, with a book by Hugh Wheeler, give the Sweeney character a human side, and reasons for his violence.
The woman who assists him in his plans, Mrs. Lovett, also has her reasons: she is infatuated with Sweeney and hopes to use him to her business advantage.
“The end of the musical is particularly unrelenting and intensely emotional,” said Nicola, who is directing. Kevin Kearney is the music director.
Twenty-one actors, in grades three through 12, are bringing the story to the stage.
Unlike other musicals, “Sweeney Todd’ is “very operatic, and we didn’t have a show this year that’s quite like that,” Nicola said. There are vocal challenges, but music enhances storytelling and is very accessible.
But “operatic” means that unlike traditional musicals, “Sweeney Todd” is not broken up by song and dance, so the challenges are continuous.
In all, Nicola said, whatever the difficulties, Highwood takes every opportunity to do Sondheim.
The theater is using a smaller orchestra than you would see on Broadway so that the voices of the young actors can be heard over it.
There is another change: the set. Productions of “Sweeney Todd” typically employ the protagonist’s barbershop as the centerpiece for the set. It is typically also the centerpiece of violent action.
However, Highwood substitutes that with the pie shop run by Mrs. Lovett, Todd’s business partner and would-be lover.
Audiences are greeted by the sights and sounds of the shop and the bakery. The barbershop is only one of the areas, with tables and chairs, not the emphasis it is in traditional productions.
Moreover, the action starts in the present, and the actors then lead audiences into the past.
Although there are some memorable characters with large parts, there is also a lot of ensemble work, Nicola said.
Still, most of the burden of acting and singing falls primarily on the Sweeney of the production.
Kieran Allan-Hadley, in eighth grade at A. Mario Loiederman Middle School, the Montgomery County public performing arts magnet school, has the acting challenge of his young life in playing a character he called “hugely complex” and not like any other part he has played.
He was somewhat prepared by having watched the movie version and listened to the soundtrack. What surprised him altogether was being cast as Sweeney.
“It was very surreal,” he said. “And very thrilling.”
Memorizing a lot of lyrics and lines and learning the music has not been easy. “But the hardest part is that you have to show multiple sides of him,” said Allan-Hadley, “such as his vulnerability and his softer side, before he decides to go on his revenge spree.”
It is, agreed Nicola, hard to put everything into a single character, and into a single play. There is so much to think about.
“Sweeney Todd” runs July 26-Aug.; 4, at Highwood, 1000 Spring St. Suite 350 in Silver Spring. www.thehighwoodtheatre.org.