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Music, Melodrama, and Murder Most Foul — PRC’s Youth Conservatory Performs “Sweeney Todd”

The PlayMakers Repertory Company Summer Youth Conservatory will present "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" on July 17-21 in UNC-Chapel Hill's Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre

The PlayMakers Repertory Company Summer Youth Conservatory will present “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” on July 17-21 in UNC-Chapel Hill’s Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre

The PlayMakers Repertory Company Summer Youth Conservatory, under the direction of Tom Quaintance, will present a youth-theater production of the Tony Award®-winning 1979 Broadway musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street on July 17-21 in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Center for Dramatic Art. Sweeney Todd features music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Hugh Wheeler, based on the 1973 melodrama by Christopher Bond. The show won eight 1979 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Book of a Musical.

“In 1979 my sister, who by and large hated musicals, came back from a trip to NYC raving about an awesome musical featuring a vengeful barber and an enterprising meat pie maker,” recalls Tom Quaintance, who is the artistic director of Cape Fear Regional Theatre in Fayetteville. “My dad would wear the blood spattered apron she got as a souvenir whilst grilling steaks and burgers.”

He adds, “I heard and loved the music, and was familiar with the filmed version of the original tour, but had not seen it live until the revival in 2005. I’ve always wanted to direct the musical, but have not worked on it before.”

Quaintance previously directed the PlayMakers Repertory Company Summer Youth Conservatory presentations of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Music Man, and Oliver!, as well as PlayMakers‘ critically acclaimed main-stage productions of Shipwrecked! An Entertainment and The Little Prince, and he co-directed The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby with PlayMakers producing artistic director Joseph Haj. “I think [Sweeney Todd] is Sondheim’s best musical. It is positively Shakespearian in scope and execution. The end of the first act has the soaring tragedy of Epiphany, followed by one of the funniest songs in musical-theater history in ‘A Little Priest.’ It is like Macbeth — with the murder of Duncan, followed by the porter scene — only ‘A Little Priest’ is funnier.

“Shakespeare and musicals are my passion,” Tom Quaintance confesses. “Sweeney Todd feels like both.”

He adds, “The play opens with the chorus exhorting us to ‘Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd. His skin was pale and his eye was odd. He shaved the faces of gentlemen who never thereafter were heard from again.’ Sweeney (Adrian Thornburg) is actually Benjamin Barker, returned to London bent on revenge. He partners with Mrs. Lovett (Nadia Agrourram), the struggling meat pie shop owner. Todd’s proclivity towards murder and Mrs. Lovett’s practical sociopathic tendencies are a match made — well, not in heaven.

“Todd sets up shop on Fleet Street, cutting throats, biding time until he can wreak vengeance on the vile Judge Turpin (Andrew Cook). Wackiness ensues,” quips Quaintance.

In addition to director Tom Quaintance and PlayMakers producing artistic director Joseph Haj, the creative team for this PlayMakers Repertory Company Summer Youth Conservatory production of Sweeney Todd includes choreographer Aya Shabu, musical director Andrew J. Wheeler, assistant to the musical director Nora Burgard, production manager Michael Rolleri, technical directors Chad Rogers and Adam Maxfield, scenic designer/assistant director Christopher Tulysewski, lighting designer/master electrician Nathan Gray, costume designer Jade Bettin, assistant costume designer Adam Dill, sound designer Robert Dagit, properties director Sarah Smiley, and stage manager Heather Cooper.

“We are using every inch of the Kenan Theatre in Sweeney,” claims director Tom Quaintance. “This is an immersive experience, loaded with tricks and beautifully detailed work.

Quaintance says, “[Costume designers] Jade Bettin and Adam Dill have designed an exceptional show. This is a large cast that plays multiple roles, and the detail is fantastic. Pirelli’s pants alone make the show worth the price of admission.

He notes, “Sweeney is a huge musical. Not only does it cover large swaths of period London, there is the chair. ‘Is that a chair fit for a king?’ sings Sweeney. Building a set without the challenge of a barber chair that sends its victims to the bake shop would be challenge enough. The outstanding crew and students in the TheatreTech program have done heroic work getting SWEENEY ready.

“Musically, Sweeney is as challenging a musical as exists in the musical-theater canon,” claims Quaintance. “It is an extraordinary challenge for professionals. To do it with high school students requires both extraordinary students and extraordinary faith. I was not interested in directing Sweeney with students, both because of the musical and acting challenges, until I saw the [PlayMakers Repertory Company Summer Youth Conservatory presentation of] Urinetown last year. I saw this was a community of students who were up to the challenge.”

Tom Quaintance adds, “I very much enjoy working with high school students on musicals. The utter commitment and love of the work they bring to every rehearsal is joyous.

“This is an extraordinarily challenging show vocally,” claims Tom Quaintance. “Sondheim is famously difficult material, with odd harmonies, mind-bending shifts in rhythm and the characters need wide vocal ranges. The single biggest challenge is working with young, developing voices on this material. Fortunately, music director Andrew J. Wheeler is the rare combination of an accomplished professional and a great teacher. The students sound amazing.”

Director Tom Quaintance concludes, “Much of this production will live on past the close here in Chapel Hill. I am directing Sweeney at Cape Fear Regional Theatre in Fayetteville, where I am artistic director, this fall with much of the same production team. We will be bringing the sets, props, and costumes down to CFRT and re-mounting the show with a professional cast. The work these students have been doing this summer will have a huge impact on that production.”

SECOND OPINION: July 10th Durham, NC Herald-Sun preview by Cliff Bellamy: http://www.heraldsun.com/chherald/x177811149/Theater-of-the-intense-Students-work-through-paces-in-Sweeney-Todd (Note: You must register to read this article); and July 5th Fayetteville, NC Fayetteville Observer blog posting by Rodger Mullen: http://blogs.fayobserver.com/entertainment/July-2013/CFRT-s-Tom-Quaintance-directs–Sweeney-Todd–in-Ch.

The PlayMakers Repertory Company Summer Youth Conservatory presents SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET at 7:30 p.m. July 17-20 and 2 p.m. July 21 in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 120 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus).

TICKETS: $15 ($10 students and children under 18).

BOX OFFICE: 919-962-PLAY (7529) or http://playmakersrep.org/tickets/single. SHOW: http://playmakersrep.org/sweeneytodd.

VIDEO PREVIEW (by Jon Haas): http://vimeo.com/69981362.

NEWS RELEASE: http://uncnews.unc.edu/content/view/6063/107/.

PRESENTER: http://playmakersrep.org/outreach/syc.

PRC BLOG: http://playmakersrep.blogspot.com/.

VENUE: https://www.playmakersrep.org/aboutus/kenan.

DIRECTIONS/PARKING: http://playmakersrep.org/visitorinfo.

OTHER LINKS:

Sweeney Todd (character): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sweeney_Todd (Wikipedia).

Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1973 play): http://www.samuelfrench.com/p/1746/sweeney-todd-the-demon-barber-of-fleet-street (Samuel French, Inc.). Christopher Bond (book): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Bond (Wikipedia).

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979 musical): http://www.mtishows.com/show_detail.asp?showid=000075 (Music Theatre International), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sweeney_Todd:_The_Demon_Barber_of_Fleet_Street (Wikipedia), and http://www.ibdb.com/show.php?id=8451 (Internet Broadway Database).

The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).

Study Guide: http://www.mtishowspace.com/action/file/download?file_guid=193716 (Music Theatre International).

Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics): http://www.sondheim.org/ (Stephen Sondheim Society) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Sondheim (Wikipedia).

Hugh Wheeler (book): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hugh_Wheeler (Wikipedia).

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007 film): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sweeney_Todd:_The_Demon_Barber_of_Fleet_Street_%282007_film%29 (Wikipedia) and http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0408236/ (Internet Movie Database).

Tom Quaintance (director): http://www.playmakersrep.org/performances/embed_artist.aspx?id=46909a0a-d323-4387-b2f3-42a838889c81 (PlayMakers Repertory Company bio).

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Review, a FREE weekly e-mail arts newsletter. This preview is reprinted with permission from Triangle Review.

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