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Skylight's 'Sweeney Todd' Explores Some Disquieting Human Emotions

May. 16, 2017
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Photo Credit: Mark Frohna

Winner of eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book and Best Score and nine Drama Desk Awards, composer Stephen Sondheim’s and lyricist Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, is an evocative tale that Sondheim called his “black operetta.” Sweeney Todd opened on Broadway in 1979 and has never left the world’s stages—and for very good reasons, indeed.

Sweeney Todd is one of Sondheim’s masterpieces,” says Skylight Music Theatre Artistic Director Ray Jivoff. “It combines the bloody thrills of a classic ‘penny dreadful’ with sharp, witty lyrics and thrilling music. It is a revenge tragedy that is, indeed, grisly and bloody, but it is also remarkably funny and poetic.” Clearly, it hits upon many human emotions all at once, and that quality, combined with the enormous talents who created it, have made it a lasting masterpiece of the musical stage. Sweeney Todd makes its third appearance at the Skylight this month, having previously been produced by the company both 20 and 30 years ago.

Making a return to the Skylight for the show is international director Matthew Ozawa who describes Sweeney Todd as “both a tragedy and comedy—a roller-coaster of a ride.” As for those all-too-human emotions that come to the surface in the musical, As Ozawa explains, “Sweeney Todd explores some fascinating and dark ideas. How far would someone go for revenge? What drives someone to kill? What choices lead someone to become mad? These are topics that continue to engage us—whether in a horror flick or a TV show like ‘Dexter.’ The brilliance of Sondheim is that he has managed to combine gruesome horror and dark humor into this epic, sweeping piece of music theater.” 

With a 13-member production team and a cast of 19, this Skylight production doesn’t skimp on details or talent. The title character will be played by Andrew Varela. He has appeared on Broadway as Jean Valjean (Les Miserables) and as the eponymous Phantom (Phantom of the Opera); Varela previously played the Pirate King in Skylight’s The Pirates of Penzance. He’s also appeared on TV in commercials and on the series “Chicago Justice.” Appearing as Mrs. Lovett—Todd’s culinary killer and accomplice—is Christina Hall, making her Skylight debut. Hall has been successfully working the Chicago theater circuit for a decade. Making his debut with the Skylight in this production (as music director and conductor) is Benjamin Makino—current Director of Music for Opera Memphis. Sweeney Todd’s director, Matthew Ozawa, has worked with opera companies from Chicago to Oregon, from Canada to Santa Fe and from Macau to Thailand.

“Our production takes the grit of London at the turn of the century and infuses it with a modern sleekness that parallels the machine-like precision of how Sweeney enacts his revenge,” says Ozawa. Again, Sweeney Todd’s widespread appeal—its insight into some of our darker motives and thoughts that chill us to the bone—comes to the fore. “Sweeney makes us question our own demons and the darkness of humanity,” Ozawa explains. “Do we all possess it within ourselves to commit such horrific actions?” Compelling questions, indeed.

May 19-June 11 at the Cabot Theatre, Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway. For tickets call 414-291-7800 or visit skylightmusictheatre.org.

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