By FRANK LEWIS
PDT Staff Writer
You may see Sweeney Todd School Edition at the Vern Riffe Center for the Arts on the campus of Shawnee State University, and know most assuredly, you will not see one drop of blood. Performances are March 2-4. Times and tickets are available at the McKinley Box Office.
When it was first announced that the Portsmouth Area Arts Council and Children’s Theatre Senior Company was going to be staging “Sweeney Todd,” there was probably a mass gasp in the community. But this performance is about forgiveness and why bad choices have consequences. In fact, Sweeney himself says, “The history of the world, my pet, is learn forgiveness and try to forget.”
Sweeney Todd School Edition is a PG-13 version of “Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” a 1979 musical thriller with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and libretto by Hugh Wheeler. The musical is based on the 1973 play by Christopher Bond.
As usual, it will come as no surprise that two equally talented local actors, Jordan Nickles and Hannah Storey, tackle the two main roles, Todd and Mrs. Lovett, going toe-to-toe throughout, with an outstanding supporting cast.
“Instead of being rated R, it’s rated PG-13, so if somebody under 13 wants to come and see it, they will have to bring a parent or guardian, because there are some scary things that happen in the show,” director Susan Foster said. “Basically it’s pretty much the same as the musical. We have changed some of the music and the lyrics.”
Foster said when the group first started the Children’s Theatre, the senior company told her it was the show they wanted to do.
“I wouldn’t let them do it at first, but made a way, and now we are doing it this year,” Foster said. “We just have an awesome cast. They’ve really had a great time putting it together.”
Nickles and Storey have something in common. They both love off-beat roles that require leaving yourself behind in favor of the personality of the character.
“It’s a lot of fun, because you can play it up. She’s crazy. So you can play it like she knows what she’s talking about, but she’s crazy, or like she’s just going along and doing whatever comes next,” Storey said. “So, for the most part I play it up like I know what I’m talking about, and I’m crazy, so most of what I do, I do out of love for Sweeney.”
First warning — don’t eat Mrs. Lovett’s pies.
“This is something I have looked forward to for quite a long time. I think the movie (Johnny Depp) came out about two years ago. I started looking up scenes from the original Sondheim production, and they mentioned we might be doing it. We really didn’t have the funds to get into it, so we had to postpone it,” Nickles said. “So it is something that has really been building up, and I have had time to really prepare for.”
Nickles commands attention with his maniacal eyes, and dark emotions, throughout each scene. Revenge is his motive, and the straight razor his instrument of vengeance. One only needs to watch him wrap his fingers around the razor to know they probably don’t want a shave. Nickles loves to portray characters who are completely off the wall. It is his alter ego.
“I think that is by far just the most entertaining characters,” Nickles said. “I remember Alladin. Everyone recognizes Alladin, but the genie had that comedic factor, that thing that people remember. People leave, and that is the performance they always refer to. It makes such an impact because it has such eccentric emotions and attitude.”
So how much creativity was involved in his portrayal of Sweeney Todd?
“I wanted 100 percent of my personality into this character,” Nickles said. “I didn’t want to act like Johnny Depp. I didn’t want to act George Hearn (Broadway production). I wanted to put into this character — if I was put in this situation, how would I react? But at the same time, keep the essence of that character. You don’t want to draw away from it. This is still Sweeney Todd.”
Foster said the cast consists of 18 players with a backstage crew as well, ages 14 to 18.
Tammy Salmons, whose son Adam, is a cast member, said she had no reservations about her son participating in the presentation, despite the title.
“I already knew it was going to be a school version,” Salmons said. “We love the theatre and we knew the teenagers wanted to do something a little bit more grown up. We were all for it.”
Adam, a highly energetic performer was enthusiastic about getting started.
“I get to sing and dance in the ensemble,” Adam said. “I enjoy all of the practices.”
One of the main supporting roles is that of Johanna, Sweeney’s estranged daughter, played by Aundrea Cline.
“The judge wants to marry her, but she see’s Anthony (Chanan Brown) and it’s love at first sight,” Cline said. “Their whole story is falling in love and trying to run away together.”
Drew Cunningham, another of the talented products of Portsmouth West’s Linda Tieman, lays on a thick Italian brogue as Adolfo Pirelli — it suffices to say he is the “first victim.”
“He is a rival barber of Sweeney Todd,” Cunningham said. “At first glance I am this Italian flamboyant person, but you come to find out later on, after they have a contest, that I recognize Sweeney as when he was Benjamin Barker, so I try to extort money from him.”
If there are any lines that push the envelope, they are those delivered by the Beggar Woman, portrayed by Alison Thompson, who started acting in fifth grade, when she played a child in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat” at Portsmouth West.
“We’re just like a big family,” Thompson said. “Most of us have grown up together. We have all come from little tykes to, now, when it seems like we’re going off to college, and it’s really fun to get back together every year and we get to reconnect and show emotions and create shows that have so much meaning.”
Shirley Idzakovich is in charge of a performance by junior participants that goes on prior to the show in the lobby of the theatre. Idzakovich said the junior performers are doing a flash mob, and then on the stage, 15 minutes prior to the play, a Monster Mash dance.
Becky Lovins, of PAAC, responded to the mixed message of a dark comedy and a moral play, that the school edition sends out.
“We really don’t make it happen. Sondheim is the one who made it happen,” Lovins said. “What Sondheim did when he wrote the story is, when he’s talking about them making fun of baking people, and putting them in pies (“A Little Priest”), that song is meant to be them making fun of themselves, and not literally doing it. But when the reality of killing comes about it is much more serious. The characters take it in a much more serious light.”
In the end it is a story of decisions, choices, and what might have been.
“There’s so many times that the characters could take a different path and change the outcome,” Lovins said. “And that is what you are supposed to walk away with.”
Frank Lewis may be reached at 740-353-3101, ext. 232, or email@example.com.