Theater of the intense: Students work through paces in ‘Sweeney Todd’

Jul. 10, 2013 @ 06:00 PM

Dylan Goodman takes a pair of pliers and plucks the strings of an old piano sound board, creating crashing, dissonant tones. Using a violin bow, he creates high-pitched, eerie sounds from a water harp. The sound effects set the mood to the opening song of  “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” a musical that has equal parts ghoulish gore and comedy.

Students in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s Summer Youth Conservatory will perform the musical beginning Wednesday.
Goodman attended the conservatory last summer and is serving as an intern this year. The sounds he produced during a rehearsal this week were the brainchild of Tom Quaintance, director of the play, and Andrew Wheeler, music director, Goodman said. The prelude also is inspired by Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the music to ‘Sweeney,’ and who was inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s films “He drew upon how Hitchcock would create suspense,” Goodman said. “Sondheim tries to use that same effect.”
High school students from across North Carolina have been rehearsing this week to perfect this difficult musical. Students ages 14-18 are eligible for Theatre Tech and Theatre Intensive, and get to work with professional directors, choreographers and actors. Middle school students are eligible for the program Theatre Quest.
At this rehearsal, Quaintance puts members of the ensemble, which functions in this play not just as a chorus but as a character, through some paces. “Stop. Stop. Find your focus, guys,” Quaintance tells the actors. As they set up the staging for the song “My Friends,” he tells them to watch their timing as they transition into the tune. “This kind of precision … is what separates amateurs and professionals,” Quaintance said. “Treat all of this as text that you have to learn.”
“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” was first performed in 1979 on Broadway, with music by Sondheim and story by Hugh Wheeler. Based on a Victorian era legend, the play is set in London in 1846. Sweeney Todd (played by Adrian Thornburg) returns to London from a penal colony after Judge Turpin (played by Andrew Cook) falsely convicted him of a crime years earlier. Turpin wanted Todd’s wife, Lucy, and his daughter, Johanna (played by Chloe Lucente).
Todd meets Mrs. Lovett (played by Nadia Agourram), who runs a meat pie shop. The meat pie business is not going well for Lovett, so she suggests that Todd join her as a barber. She shows him his set of razors that she has kept. (For the squeamish, the razors in this production have been smoothed down to a dull surface.) Todd, stung by the injustice of the world, vows vengeance on humanity and begins killing his clients, whom Mrs. Lovett transforms into tasty meat pies, thereby increasing business. The play also centers around Todd’s quest for revenge against Judge Turpin, and his hopes of being reunited with his wife and daughter.  
The precision that Quaintance demands pays off, said Thornburg of Chapel Hill. “When you’re making a musical that is this difficult and has this many moving parts … it requires a lot of going back,” he said. While the repetition can be difficult, “it also helps the character evolve,’ Thornburg said. The script to this how “does a good job of showing how being dark and being funny are not mutually exclusive,” he said.
Agourram, also of Chapel Hill, has been listening to the musical since she was in middle school. “This is actually one of the first musicals that got me interested in musical theater,” she said. Having memorized many of the tunes to this musically and rhythmically challenging show helped her with this production. “Once you learn your notes and rhythms, you don’t have to think about it,” she said.
Playing Mrs. Lovett is challenging because she has to focus on so many actions, Agourram said. Mrs. Lovett wants to keep Todd from returning to prison, and she also wants him to love her. The character also moves around a lot. She cites a scene during the second act (the song “God, That’s Good!”) in which Mrs. Lovett is running between the meat pie customers and Todd’s upstairs barber shop. “It’s a really long song. It’s seven minutes of me running about. … I’m also in a corset,” Agourram said.
Olivia Coen, a member of the ensemble who also plays young Lucy Barker, said the conservatory experience has helped her stretch as an actor. “I’ve definitely extended my range of what I can do,” she said. Being in the ensemble has taught her to trust her fellow actors “and still be into the character. … I’ve learned to focus more on what I’m trying to do.”

Go and Do

WHAT: Playmakers’ Summer Youth Conservatory’s production of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”
WHERE: Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre, UNC Center for Dramatic Art
WHEN: Shows begin Wednesday and continue through July 20 at 7:30 p.m., with a 2 p.m. performance July 21.
ADMISSION: Tickets are $15 general admission. To purchase, call 919-962-7529 or visit