‘Sweeney Todd’ slices its way onto Barter’s main stage
By Jeff Lambert

Barter Theatre is making the cutthroat razor worthy of the name with its latest production. “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” opens Saturday at the historic playhouse in Abingdon, Va.

In this sordid tale of revenge inspired by Victorian penny dreadfuls, Sweeney Todd returns to London after 15 years of wrongful imprisonment in a penal colony. To get his just desserts on the man that ruined his life, Todd hatches a gory plan involving a barber shop, a bakery and a sinister meat pie recipe that would stifle any appetite.

Tom Zemon plays the wronged barber, a character that he said he’s always wanted to play — and is more complex than his actions would suggest.

“It seems like every role that I’ve ever played has been a villain,” Zemon said. “But the way I always approach these characters is that they’re just being true to their realities. Sweeney Todd has been wronged, and he has a particularly violent way of dealing with that.”

Zemon’s co-star, Jill Anderson, plays Mrs. Lovett, Todd’s accomplice, whose meat pies involve a certain secret ingredient. Anderson said that Lovett, too, is existentially challenging to play.

“I think that Mrs. Lovett sees herself as a pragmatist,” Anderson said. “She just sees what needs to be done and she does it. Of course, she’s morally bankrupt.”

Zemon said that the key to playing Todd is communicating his emotional arch — and capturing the character’s slip into insanity towards the end of the first act.

“The challenge is not screaming your head off the whole night,” he said. “You can do some of that, but people aren’t going to listen or understand you if you’re just raving the entire time.”

Both stars agree that the most difficult task in the musical is the music itself. The score was written by Stephen Sondheim, a composer known for his enigmatic scores, such as “Into the Woods” and “A Little Night Music.”

“Sondheim is very sophisticated music. It’s not like Rodgers and Hammerstein, where everything makes sense immediately to your ear and to your musical instincts,” Anderson said. “The accompaniment rarely supports what you’re singing. So you wonder and you second guess yourself — a lot.”

While it’s intriguing for the audience to listen to, Anderson said, it presents a real challenge to the cast.

“It’s like when you do Shakespeare,” Zemon said. “You have to spend one layer of the rehearsals just ingesting the material and making it feel organic, so that it becomes as easy to you as ‘Hickory Dickory Dock’ is to a 5-year-old.”

Fans of the 2007 film adaptation of “Sweeney Todd” can expect something different from the stage play, according to Anderson.

“Live theater is such an immediate experience,” she said. “Anything can happen, and this show is very suspenseful and edgy.”

The production is directed by Richard Rose, Barter’s artistic director. Rose last directed “Tommy,” a stage version of The Who’s rock opera. “Sweeney Todd” runs through Sept. 13.