Reinvention is as American as Edison appropriating Tesla’s work or Donald Trump cloaking himself in the mantle of legitimate presidential candidacy. Hollywood’s current remake/reboot craze illustrates the pivotal place reinvention occupies in the arts, and theatre is no stranger to the concept. Whether it’s Romeo and Juliet set in New York City circa 1965, the various versions of The Phantom of the Opera or English playwright Christopher Bond’s reimagining of a penny dreadful villain as a crucible of righteous revenge, theatre embraces reinvention with vim, vigor and a canny eye for profit.
Bond’s adaptation of Sweeney Todd placed the character on the road to theatrical fame, but it wasn’t until American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, of A funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Into the Woods fame, turned Bond’s play into a darkly rollicking musical that the character and this newly-minted iteration of his story achieved true immortality. Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street garnered numerous Tony awards and spawned the popular 2007 Johnny Deppstarring film of the same name. Now, the CenterStage Theatre Company brings the mad barber’s murderous exploits to Boulder for a two-week run.
Sweeney Todd begins with the return of Sweeney Todd (Brandon Warren), bent on revenge, to London. Fifteen years earlier, a vicious, malignant judge, Turpin (Nathan Elllgren), took a liking to Todd’s beautiful wife. Turpin had Todd brought up on bogus charges then convicted him and sentenced him to be transported to the penal colony of Australia. Turpin took from Todd his wife, his young daughter, his livelihood and his freedom. Was there ever any better reason for revenge?
Penniless and desperate, Todd’s luck takes a turn for the better when Mrs. Lovett (Lizzy Scholz) recognizes him and offers him his old shop space, which is situated conveniently above Mrs. Lovett’s own failing meat pie establishment. Before long, Sweeney Todd and the morally flexible Mrs. Lovett realize that their business plans share a certain synergy. Todd will murder and rob the occasional customer, and Mrs. Lovett will dispose of the bodies by turning them into the primary ingredient of her signature fare.
It’s worth noting that with this plot contrivance Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street aspires to social commentary. The notion is that Todd and Lovett are balancing the societal scales by turning upper class oppressors into food for the lower class oppressed. It’s a cute conceit but one the musical fails to follow through on.
Judge Turpin, it turns out, has raised Sweeney Todd’s daughter, Johanna (Sienna Sewell), as his own. This creates a passel of plot perversions as Todd’s associate, a sailor named Anthony ( Jacob Bloom), falls in love with Johanna, Todd seeks to reunite with her and, in an unexpected bit of ickiness, Turpin himself seeks to marry her.
Throats are slashed. Soylent Green meat pies are made. Secret identities are revealed, and it’s all set to lavish musical accompaniment, which, it turns out, presented the single biggest production pothole, at least on opening night. Either the orchestra’s volume was set too high or the actors’ mics were set too low because the music drowned out the performers in all but the quietest moments. This technical snafu must be resolved if audiences are to have any hope of actually hearing the dialogue and lyrics.
Aside from that issue, however, the cast and crew of Sweeney Todd by and large deliver. As with any amateur production, there were moments of shuddering disharmony and questionable acting, costuming and set design choices, but there were also some clear triumphs. Chief among them was Lizzy Scholz’s portrayal of Mrs. Lovett. Unlike anyone else on stage, Scholz adopted and maintained an English accent for the entire show. Her singing was strong, and her acting equally so. Her duet with Warren on the Act One closer, “A Little Priest,” was easily Sweeney Todd’s proudest moment.
The CenterStage Theatre Company has devoted the past 25 years to turning kids on to live theatre. Focused on middle school through college-aged performers — with some outlier, older-skewing shows like its upcoming production of Avenue Q — CenterStage’s dedication both to educating and empowering youth and to the Front Range theatre scene is undeniable. In a novel, reparatory-style twist for a production of this size, CenterStage is presenting Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street with two alternating casts. Though it is essentially a high school musical, which we all know offer up wildly varied levels of quality, CenterStage’s Sweeney Todd is a bloody good time.
On the bill: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, through July 26, Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder, www.centerstagetheatrecompany.org, $10 and up.