‘Sweeney’ side up

Sweeney Todd, center, played by Daniel Bell, watches the antics of people on the street, played by Jett Bingman, left, and Brendan Brady, right, when he arrives in London in the musical
Sweeney Todd, center, played by Daniel Bell, watches the antics of people on the street, played by Jett Bingman, left, and Brendan Brady, right, when he arrives in London in the musical "Sweeney Todd" being staged at the Lake City Playhouse starting Friday, Feb. 9. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Lake City Playhouse takes a lighter approach than big-screen version of ‘Sweeney Todd’

Forget the movie.

That’s what George Green will tell you if you’ve only seen the 2007 Tim Burton-Johnny Depp version of “Sweeney Todd.”

The Stephen Sondheim musical, which Green is directing at Lake City Playhouse, is not as dark or gothic as the film version.

“This is a very strong story about revenge,” Green said. “One, it’s witty. It’s got a lot of funny moments and levity throughout. Even though it’s a dark musical, it’s got some nice moments to breathe, and to kind of chuckle at and enjoy. So it’s not as heavy as most people think. The movie made the show seem so much heavier than what the theatrical version is.”

“Sweeney Todd” tells the story of a barber in Victorian London who is sent to a penal colony on trumped-up charges. While he’s away, the judge drives his wife to suicide. Upon his return, he seeks revenge against the world via his barber chair, where he slits his victims’ throats and has them baked into meat pies with the help of Mrs. Lovett.

Sweeney Todd, the character, first made his appearance in a serial called “String of Pearls,” 1846-’47. In 1875, Frederick Hazelton’s dramatization “Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street” was published. The story was made into films, radio plays, even a ballet. Sondheim’s musical version, released in 1979, is based on Christopher Bond’s 1973 play. It was an acclaimed production, winning the Tony Award for best musical and the Olivier Award for best new musical.

Green draws a comparison between “Sweeney Todd” and “Les Miserables.” In “Les Mis,” Jean Valjean is terribly wronged, yet remains on the right path. Sweeney Todd, however, “takes the wrong path,” Green said. “That’s what this show shows you, is when a guy takes the wrong path, look at everything that goes wrong and how it continually gravitates into this downhill slope of disaster.”

The Lake City production stars Daniel Bell, theater director at Lake City High School, as Sweeney Todd, and Abbey Crawford as Mrs. Lovett. The cast numbers 25.

“We have a very talented group of performers, some of them professional, and to see them I think they make it look fairly easy,” he said. “To be able to stand and sing it is impressive. To be able to perform it and emote it in the manner that they’re going to be doing, it’s a really strong show.”

The challenges in doing Sondheim are not insignificant, said Green, who also is Lake City Playhouse’s artistic director. Sondheim is popular because his works are well written. But he keeps audiences engaged by keeping actors on their toes.

“He likes to change on you. He brings in awkward times and switches tempos and it’s confusing,” Green said. A lot of the ballads sound the same, but the lyrics are completely different. “The ensemble has to be on their game, everyone in the show has to be on their game about the music 100 percent of the time.”

Green points to recent incidents of mass violence – Newtown, Conn.; Aurora, Colo. – as evidence of the show’s continued relevance.

“The story is not, ‘Let’s do a play about a guy slitting throats,’ ” Green said. “It just reminds us that there are people in our society who have revenge or ill will in their minds, and you can’t control them. You never know when someone is going to turn that switch on and do something horrible.”

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