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Published: Sunday, 11/17/2002

Demon Barber prepares to stalk the Valentine

BY STEVEN CORNELIUS
BLADE MUSIC CRITIC

“For what's the sound of the world out there?

Those crunching noises pervading the air?

It's man devouring man, my dear,

And who are we to deny it in here?”

&tab; -Sweeney Todd

Who indeed? Not London's most infamous barber, that's for sure.

Mr. Todd will present his unique views on food, revenge, and the state of the human condition this weekend when Toledo Opera presents Stephen Sondheim's thriller Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at the Valentine Theatre.

The opera premiered on Broadway in 1979. It is based on a Victorian “penny dreadful” story by Thomas Prest and adapted from a play by Christopher Bond. Briefly, the opera tells the story of the barber Sweeney Todd, a basically good soul whose mind and morality are shattered by life's events.

The opera opens with Todd's return to London after 15 years of exile on a trumped- up charge so that a lecherous judge could have his way with Todd's young and faithful wife. Todd discovers that in his absence, his wife has taken arsenic and his daughter, now 16, is the judge's ward. Worse yet, the judge has decided to wed the girl.

Forthwith, Todd determines to kill the judge to revenge his wife and save his daughter. He almost succeeds. But when the judge escapes, Todd's reason - or what is left of it - snaps. Thereupon Todd sets off on musical theater's most gruesome, and darkly hilarious, killing spree.

Not only does this singing barber give his clients the closest shaves they will ever get, but afterwards he sends them down a chute to become ingredients in Mrs. Lovett's increasingly successful meat pie shop.

Moving the tale forward is a remarkably elastic musical, with stage language that ranges in style from simple vaudeville comedy to full-blown operatic drama. In this, Sweeney Todd might be likened to Mozart's Don Giovanni, an opera written 200 years earlier but which employs a similar range of humor and darkness, style and emotion.

Born in 1930, Sondheim is unquestionably the widest-ranging American lyricist/composer to ever write for the theater. In each of his works he has moved to new expressive ground.

Much of Sondheim's breadth comes from his background. As a boy he was befriended and mentored in the arts of language and musical theater by Oscar Hammerstein II. After graduating from Williams College, Sondheim enrolled at Princeton where he studied composition with Milton Babbit, one of the century's most experimental composers. The pairing seems to have been a formidable combination.

Sonheim made his Broadway debut at age 27 as the lyricist for Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story. His own shows include, among others, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), the sweetly nostalgic waltz operetta A Little Night Music (1973), the Japanese Kabuki theater-inflected Pacific Overtures (1976), and the grown-up fairy-tale Into the Woods (1987).

In each, Sondheim created a unique musical language. That is his genius.

Few shows have a wider range of emotion than Sweeney Todd, which mixes fidelity with revenge, comedy with horror.

“The moral of all this is that revenge will lead you to hell. There is no ultimate satisfaction in `an eye for an eye,'” said director Marc Verzatt, who has been in Toledo working with the company for the past two weeks.

“Beyond that is the idea that one has to determine one's own morality. You can't let other people tell you how to behave,” he said.

These are some of the viewpoints Verzatt says are to be found in the show. There are lots of others, but his focus is on revealing the character's motivations, not defining overarching themes.

“I never say `Aha, this is what I want this piece to be about.' Instead, I look at what the composer did. I try to get into the composer's head and figure out what he was thinking,” said Verzatt.

Directing is about helping to reveal “the kaleidoscopic aspects of the human mind” and “about reacting in the moment to the various and ever-changing situations,” he believes.

“The point is that the character that you see at any point in time is this way because of what has happened to him and what is happening now. Sweeney doesn't begin the show looking to become the demon barber of Fleet Street. The story is about what happens to him and how he reacts to what goes on around him.”

What makes Sondheim such a powerful composer, said Verzatt, is that “he writes for the emotional moment. We are not motivated by the same things all the time.” Sondheim understands that and writes accordingly, he said.

Baritone Gary Simpson will play Todd. Mrs Lovett will be sung by Myrna Paris. Thomas Conlin will conduct. Sets were designed by David Gano.

Toledo Opera will present Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Valentine Theatre. Depending on date, tickets range from $20 to $90. Information: 419-255-7464 or 866-860-9048.



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