By Zach Sparks
As the saying goes, “revenge is a dish best served cold” — advice that Victorian-era barber Sweeney Todd took literally as he followed a 15-year exile by going on a murderous rampage and having his victims baked into pies.
The grim tale has been told through Broadway and film, and sharing its adaptation of the musical on February 16-17 and February 23-24 is Opera ACCC, which will take its act to the 365-seat Robert Kauffman Theater in the Pascal Center for Performing Arts.
Opera AACC founder Doug Byerly chose “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” because 2019 marks the 40th anniversary of the Broadway production.
“It is about character and it has a compelling story,” said Byerly, who also portrays Sweeney Todd in the production. “As gruesome as it is, it truly at its bare bones looks at humanity and the sense of humanness of these characters.”
Bringing to life the story is a group of students, faculty members and professionals. Together, they work under the stage direction of Jerry Vess and music direction of Anna Binneweg to adapt the original material: the book by Hugh Wheeler and the music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.
Byerly called Sweeney Todd the hardest singing role he has ever had to learn, because Sondheim is “rhythmically and harmonically complex.”
“I’ve sung Verdi, I’ve sung Mozart, I‘ve sung Puccini, and the harmonic language of Stephen Sondheim is like Bernstein, it’s like Vaughan Williams or Rutter; it has this contemporary, modern harmony, but then also you get these gorgeous melodies and this rhythmically challenging stuff, and there’s words.”
Byerly said that for this staged concert of “Sweeney Todd,” he wanted Vess, a non-operatic director. “Jerry’s sensibility at telling stories is paramount to attracting new audiences to sophisticated music theater and opera,” Byerly said.
As the music director and conductor of both the AACC Symphony Orchestra and the Londontowne Symphony Orchestra in Annapolis, Binneweg brings to the show “conducting and musical direction at the highest professional expectation and level,” Byerly added.
Agreeing that the music is complex, Vess said the singers will often look at one another with astonishment during rehearsals.
“The singers say, ‘This song wants to go that way, but I want to go this way,’” he said. “Sondheim zigs and zags in different ways than a traditional music writer would.”
Byerly is paired with a talented cast. Broadneck High graduate Kristina Tardif Banks plays Mrs. Lovett.
“Eight years ago, she was singing Yum-Yum in ‘The Mikado’ onstage,” Byerly said. “So to go from signing Yum-Yum in Gilbert and Sullivan to now Mrs. Lovett … she is onstage and singing probably more than Sweeney does.”
Judge Turpin is played by AACC English professor and playwright Greg Jones, whom Byerly called “an amazing example to all the students in the cast.”
Byerly also praised Ashley Gladden, a marketing strategist for Anne Arundel Medical Center who received opera training at Florida State University.
“She has one of those young soprano voices that is absolutely perfect for the role of Johanna,” Byerly said.
Cast as a male character is Emily Sergo as Signor Pirelli. “Emily Sergo is one of the best comic actresses that I know,” Byerly said, “and she’s a legitimate coloratura soprano singing a tenor role that we have slightly modified, but she rips it up the character of Signor Pirelli.”
Rounding out the cast are Tania Bindhoff as the Beggar Woman, Trevor Greenfield as Anthony, and students Tory Van Dine as Beadle and Devin Van Dine as Tobias. Altogether, the cast and crew is comprised of eight principal actors, 22 members of the AACC Concert Choir, 23 musicians from the AACC Symphony Orchestra and offstage volunteers for a total of more than 60 people.
“We’ve got the old, we’ve got the young and everybody in between, so it’s real varied cast and I’m seeing growth from all the younger actors,” Vess said.
Because of the production’s adult themes, the recommended audience age is high school and older. For tickets, call 410-777-2457 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. All performances during the two-weekend run are at 2:00pm.
Audiences will enjoy themes that are as relevant today as they were 40 years ago.
“You’ve got injustice, you’ve got greed and love, you’ve got revenge – and they get all woven in,” Vess said.
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