CU Eklund Opera comes to the Macky stage

Victorian production with a twist aims to make Sweeney Todd at least human

Skyler Schlenker (Sweeney Todd) and Erin Hodgson (Mrs. Lovett) star in CU's production of Sweeney Todd.

Stephen Sondheim’s demon barber of Fleet Street is a hard character to like. He is, after all, a serial killer with a dark heart, but with a production of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, Leigh Holman of CU’s Eklund Opera Program aims to make him likable.

At least a little.

“I don’t want him to appear already as a villain” at the beginning of the show, she says. “I want to see a human being, and it’s not until he learns what [happened] to his wife that we start to see the change” into a calculated killer.

“I want to see that arc,” she says. “He’s an anti-hero that’s cutting throats, but somehow you find yourself on his side.”

The production of Sweeney Todd by CU’s Eklund Opera program, with Holman’s semi-likable anti-hero and the rest of the gory story, will take the Macky Auditorium stage March 16-18. The cast and orchestra of CU students will be led by guest conductor Caleb Harris, a member of the Vanderbilt University faculty and a sabbatical replacement for CU’s Nick Carthy.

Other artistic contributors to the production include set and lighting designer Peter Dean Back, costume designer Tom Robbins, chorus master Jeremy Reger and choreographer Stephen Bertles. In addition to CU students, the cast will include CU faculty Andrew Garland as Todd and guest artist and CU alumnus Wei Wu as Judge Turpin.

Originally a cartoonish villain of English penny dreadfuls, Todd was given more depth by Christopher Bond, whose play Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street turned the throat-slitting barber into a victim of injustice who seeks revenge on the evil Judge Turpin.

Bond’s play was turned into a quasi-operatic Broadway musical by Sondheim in 1979. In spite of the bloody story, the musical starring Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou enjoyed great success on Broadway, as did a film starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter released in 2007.

When he was asked to fill in for Carthy, Harris leaped at the chance to conduct Sweeney Todd. “When you tell opera people that you’re doing Sweeney Todd, they all get excited,” he says. “It’s been an immense pleasure to study it. It’s just a very colorful and beautiful score. So to work on it is just fantastic, and especially getting to work on it in this environment, to work with Leigh (Holman), to be here in unbelievably beautiful Boulder.”

Harris says the music does more than simply reflect the text: it sets the mood for the entire piece. In fact, there is so much music throughout that Sweeney Todd is nearly an opera on its own. “Sondheim wanted to have this horror-film aspect that there’s something flowing underneath, no matter what’s happening on stage,” he says. “Even the opening makes us feel uneasy and jittery.”

Part of the effectiveness of Sweeney Todd comes from the instrumental colors. That is partly due to the orchestration of Jonathan Tunick, who orchestrated most of Sondheim’s musicals. “This great orchestrator Jonathan Tunick gave us a magical, colorful score,” Harris says.

There are some notable special effects included. “There’s a very eerie use of the organ,” Harris says. “We have a factory whistle, we have birds depicted in the wind sections, so you’ll hear clarinet, flute, oboe, playing solos, and sometimes we have artificial birds as well.”

With her staging, Homan embraces the era of the original story. The production will be “Victorian era with a twist,” she says. “It’s going to have that steampunk look where you have lots of gears and things like that.

“I knew that the students would love and dig this, I knew this audience would dig this style, and of course steampunk is a ripoff of the Victorian era anyway. But it’s going to look amazing on-stage. The set that Peter Dean Beck has designed is absolutely amazing.”

She has also embraced the idea of the performers as Victorian players. “It’s the idea of actors in this Victorian/steampunk era putting on a show for the audience. When they sing ‘Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd’ in the very opening, they’re still finishing putting on their costumes. They’re actors inviting the audience to come along on this journey with us.”

Both Harris and Holman point to the complexity of Sondheim’s characters. The way Sweeney develops his obsession with revenge over the course of the first act is one example of that depth. “We can tell he already has vengeance on his mind, even early on,” Harris says. “We don’t know how that’s going to turn out yet, but there’s this moment right before intermission. And he becomes bloodthirsty.”

Harris advises the audience not to overthink the show. “Come, sit back, watch and listen,” he says. “The music and the text tell you all you need to know.”

On the Bill: Sweeney Todd — Leigh Holman, director, Caleb Harris, conductor. 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 16 and Saturday, March 17; 2 p.m. Sunday, March 18. Eklund Opera Program, University of Colorado, Boulder, Macky Auditorium, 1595 Pleasant St., Boulder. Tickets: 303-492-8008.

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