Idaho Shakespeare Festival getting back to scary with 'Sweeney Todd'

Idaho Shakespeare reinvents and invigorates Sondheim's musical.

doland@idahostatesman.comJuly 5, 2013 


    8 p.m. July 5 (preview), July 6 (opening night), July 7 (family night) and dates through Sept. 1, ISF Amphitheater, 5657 Warm Springs Ave., Boise. $18-$25 preview, $24-$33 ($12 for ages 6-17) on family night only, $24-$41 Tuesdays-Saturdays for adults. $18 for students with ID any night. 336-9221 and

"There will be blood!" declared director Victoria Bussert with a diabolical laugh, talking about her production of "Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street," which opens this weekend at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival.

"I think we have 16 different kinds of blood we're working with - different colors and thickness - all for different uses," she says. "It's so much fun."

And that's what the musical "Sweeney Todd" should be: demonic, twisted, deeply tragic and darkly funny.

"We want to create this experiential theater piece in which we're going to laugh and scream and cry," Bussert says.

The Idaho Shakespeare Festival company is no stranger to the kind of layered, complex story told in "Sweeney Todd." There are a lot of commonalities between this level of musical theater and, say, "King Lear."

Billed as a musical thriller, Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's masterpiece opened on Broadway in 1979, transforming the theater world with its innovative staging, musical complexity and dark subject matter.

"It was shocking at the time," Bussert remembers. "I saw it in previews, and I didn't know anything about it, and there were moments that were terrifying."

Bussert and her company of classically trained actors are dying to get it back to that feel. And this is the right company to do it.

Bussert has proved her ability to brush the dust off theatrical warhorses - such as last season's "Cabaret," for which she found a truly shocking ending - and hone them to a grimier, grimmer edge.

This cast of seasoned actors - who have proven their chops both musically and as classical text meisters - are in full throttle on this one, buried in a steampunk sensibility.

"This is much more visceral. I feel it's become kind of a warm and fuzzy horror musical and I want to get back the fun edge," Bussert says.

The story of Sweeney Todd began as an urban legend in 19th century London. The tale of a barber who butchered unsuspecting customers and dropped their bodies through a trap door captured the imagination. After he robbed their corpses, Todd's partner, Mrs. Lovett, baked their bodies into her meat pies and sold them to the public. The story was gory and unsettling and perfect for pulp writers of the day to serialize in weekly publications called Penny Dreadfuls, sort of the 1800s version of "Tales From the Crypt."

It lived for nearly a century as a straightforward bogeyman tale, until playwright Christopher Bond fleshed out the story and characters in 1973.

He turned his Sweeney into an anti-hero, a good man who is horribly wronged when a judge's abuse of power destroys his life and sends him to a penal colony. When Todd comes back after 15 years, he sets about getting his revenge.

Sondheim and Wheeler put the story to one of the most complex, layered musical scores written, creating one of the modern masterpieces of the genre.

Most recently Tim Burton refreshed the story with his film, which starred Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter.

Tom Ford, sporting a freshly shaved head for the part, takes on the title role. Sara M. Bruner will play Mrs. Lovett.

Both are ready for the challenge of these roles.

"I couldn't have done it five years ago," says Ford, who over the seasons has charmed ISF audiences in good-guy comic roles such as Charlie Brown in "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" and Pseudolus in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum."

"Now that I've gotten a bit older and my voice is lower, I can do this role," he says. "I mean, the notes come out. I'm singing notes I never thought I could."

For Bruner, it's a thrill to sing the role of Mrs. Lovett.

"I grew up watching Angela Lansbury (who originated the role) in the PBS version," she says. "I saw it multiple times and it's been in my brain all along. I wasn't expecting to do it so soon. I'm really willing and excited to step up to the plate."

Ford will play his Sweeney with more heart than other takes on the character, he says, giving him a more tragic tone.

"The way I approach it is, he was a really nice guy - he was the best guy before it all happened," Ford says. "He was me before it all happened, so really I just have to get myself out of the way."

Bruner's Mrs. Lovett is the brains of the operation, she says.

"It's very much like the Scottish play ("Macbeth"), because there's this unfortunate marrying of minds," she says. "I don't know what he would have done without her."

"He'd be paralyzed with inaction," Ford says.

Because of their training and experience, both these actors are approaching the musical from the text rather than strictly the music. The latter is a treatment it often gets because it's often performed by opera companies.

When you approach it from the text and story, it changes the experience of the performance.

That allows the story to be told more clearly, Bussert says.

"You can hear everything," Bussert says. "Once you put the acting intentions to it, the notes just come out."

Dana Oland: 377-6442, Twitter: @IDS_DanaOland

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