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The Demon Barber of State Street

UWEC goes macabre with operatic Sweeney Todd

Hannah Mumm, photos by Andrea Paulseth |

RAISE YOUR HAND IF YOU’D LIKE SOME PIE. Matthew Pfantz as Sweeney Todd and Emma Cruciani as Mrs. Lovett in UWEC’s double-cast production of Sweeney Todd.
RAISE YOUR HAND IF YOU’D LIKE SOME PIE. Matthew Pfantz as Sweeney Todd and Emma Cruciani as Mrs. Lovett in UWEC’s double-cast production of Sweeney Todd.

Did you know that Johnny Depp was not the original Sweeney Todd?

In fact, Broadway actor Len Cariou was the first to yield the demon barber’s deadly shears. Sweeney Todd was never intended to be a movie. Almost 30 years before Tim Burton took Hollywood by storm with his sinister masterpiece, the show made its debut on Broadway.

On Feb. 23, it will make its debut in Gatner Concert Hall at UW-Eau Claire.

“They need to know more than just their Mozart and Puccini. They need to know that Sondheim just as relevant and be exposed to his style.” – director Kenneth Pereira on UWEC’s staging of Sweeney Todd

Sweeney Todd, told from the unique perspective of an omniscient chorus, follows the title character, a London exile who, after a life of injustice and hardship, becomes a sadistic barber. After losing his family to the dishonest judge who left him an expatriate, he returns to his hometown undercover and seeking violent revenge. Gruesome murders, cannibalistic conspiring, and unhappy accidents follow, thoroughly injected with gut-busting doses of dark comedy.

Director and UWEC professor Kenneth Pereira fell in love with the show the first time he saw it. Its complex music and intricate text are mesmerizing but immensely challenging to perform. When he realized he had the perfect medley of talented actors and vocalists, he jumped at the opportunity to stage the show. His students have yet to disappoint.

“I am blown away by how well these actors and singers are doing with very difficult text and music,” he said. “This is tough stuff, and they have just tackled it. It’s amazing.”

Pereira has taken measures to ease the actors’ burden (and his own). The cast was determined in October and tasked with learning their parts over Winterim. Sweeney, Mrs. Lovett, Anthony, and Johanna, the four most vocally involved roles, were double cast. Each actor will perform at four of the eight shows to keep energy and morale high.

The two Sweeneys  – Ian Rucker and Matthew Pfantz – have put in countless hours of intense rehearsal to perfect the twisted protagonist’s maniacal persona. In one short month, they’ve developed a deeply complex character and learned exceedingly complicated music. The challenge has made their labor all the more rewarding.

“It’s been a lot of work. It’s so in-depth. You really have to think about the lyrics and think about how the notes move along with the text. It’s a lot of hard work, but a lot of fun,” noted Rucker, a UWEC sophomore.

The show would be an impossible feat without the manpower, talent, and technical expertise of people like Rucker. Hundreds of students and faculty members make up the cast, chorus, orchestra, stage and lighting crews, and more.

Sweeney Todd rides the line between opera and musical, and was termed a “black operetta” by composer Stephen Sondheim. Its hybrid nature was a big part of the draw for Pereira. Every other year, the university’s Music and Theatre Arts Department puts on an opera. Past performances have been beautiful but traditional, limiting the aspiring actors’ repertoires to the classics. Pereira is a strong advocate for flexibility and believes that expanding the scope of his students’ experiences is integral to their success in theater.

“They need to know more than just their Mozart and Puccini,” he said. “They need to know that Sondheim just as relevant and be exposed to his style.”

Unique to Pereira’s production is the mood of the show. A hybrid of the movie, stage show, and original ideas, the dreary ambiance evokes 19th century Victorian London. The set, designed by a UWEC alum, depicts a factory complete with multi-level stages, the London skyline, and familiar elements such as Lovett’s pie shop, the barber shop, and – best of all – the infamous trap door beneath Sweeney’s chair. Dim lighting and fog will add to the eerie, mysterious atmosphere.

The actors each have their own specialized tactics to invoke the despair, anger, and insanity embodied in their characters. Rucker mentally replaces Sweeney Todd’s family with his own.

“I put myself in his shoes and feel the agony he would feel,” he said. “It’s all a mind game.”

Imagining his loved ones plagued by the tragedies that affect the Todds allow him to emulate Sweeney’s fury and despair.

The story of Sweeney Todd conveys a message that is shockingly poignant – perhaps even more so in modernity than in the climate of the late 1970s when it debuted or the 19th century world in which it’s set.

“We’re trying show what happens when people in power oppress the little guys,” said Pereira. “It’s interesting how pertinent this story is. The themes and the idea of the top oppressing the bottom are still very relevant today.”

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street • Feb. 23-25 and March 2-4, 7:30pm • Feb. 26 and March 5, 1:30pm • Gantner Concert Hall, Haas Fine Arts Center, UW-Eau Claire • $20 •