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Symphony opens season with 'Sweeney Todd'

Cast includes Marta Lastufka, back after a seven-year hiatus

Posted: October 27, 2011 - 12:01am
Sweeney Todd, as played by Philippe Damerval, center, prepares to dispatch Judge Turpin, played by Bill Garry, as Conductor Kyle Wiley Pickett leads the Juneau Symphony during rehearsal of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at the Juneau-Douglas High School auditorium on Tuesday.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Sweeney Todd, as played by Philippe Damerval, center, prepares to dispatch Judge Turpin, played by Bill Garry, as Conductor Kyle Wiley Pickett leads the Juneau Symphony during rehearsal of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at the Juneau-Douglas High School auditorium on Tuesday.

It’s nearly Halloween, and “Sweeney Todd” is a rather bloody tale, but audiences should be prepared to laugh rather than scream when they attend this weekend’s musical production, “Sweeney Todd in Concert.”

The performance, a semi-staged production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” involves the combined talents of the full Juneau Symphony, the Juneau Symphony Chorus, and a cast of local soloists, including Philippe Damerval as Sweeney Todd and Marta Lastufka as Mrs. Lovett. It marks the first concert of the season for the symphony, and is the first time the symphony has staged a full work of musical theater.

Sondheim described the work as a “musical thriller,” but symphony conductor Kyle Wiley Pickett, who chose the work for Juneau audiences, said the structure is more operatic than what audiences have come to expect from musicals. Rather than being a play with songs, it’s songs with a little dialog, he said.

“The story is mostly told through the songs,” he said.

“Sweeney Todd” tells the story of a 19th century London barber named Sweeney Todd who, after being grievously wronged by a judge, is driven to indulge his murderous impulses. As a barber, he has no shortage of vulnerable victims, and soon has help in figuring out what to do with his former customers: the shop next to his is a pie shop, run by his eventual partner-in-crime Nellie Lovett.

Pickett said the symphony’s version of the story plays up the humorous rather than gruesome aspects of the story. Posters and other marketing materials for the show indicate a “PG-13” rating, but this isn’t a strict guideline for parents, rather, it’s an indication that parents should give some thought to whether or not the themes are appropriate for their child.

“My 5-year-old is really intrigued by it, he wants to see it, but I think 5 is a little young,” Pickett said, adding that if he had a 10-year-old he would probably let them attend.

Pickett said he hated the 2007 movie, directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp, which in his mind sacrificed humor for blood.

“I ended up turning if off because I thought it was so wrong,” he said. “They turned it into a horror movie.”

The stage director is Flordelino Lagundino, a well-known performer and director who was most recently seen on stage at Perseverance in [title of show], a musical. Associate conductor and vocal director William Todd Hunt has also been integral to the production, working with the actors and singers prior to Pickett’s arrival in Juneau (Pickett splits his time between two orchestras: the Juneau Symphony and the North State Symphony in California).

Pickett said he’s been amazed by the talents of the cast, especially Damerval and Lastufka, who have very difficult parts to fulfill.

“If (Lastufka’s role) isn’t the most difficult part in women’s theater, it is one of the most difficult parts,” he said.

Lastufka wasn’t arguing with that assessment. Sondheim pushes the extremes with his vocal score, she said, playing with melody and rhythm, changing keys and key signatures within the space of a couple of measure

“It’s really difficult, complex music,” she said. “It’s super challenging.”

Lastufka, formerly an active actress and singer, hasn’t taken on a stage role since she appeared in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with Perseverance Theatre seven years ago, choosing to focus on her young children, now 7 and 9.

She said one big reason she auditioned for the part of Mrs. Lovett was that she remembered seeing the Tony Awards ceremony in 1979 and watching Angela Lansbury (the original Mrs. Lovett) sing “Worst Pies in London.” It made such an impression she apparently forced her schoolmates in Anchorage to listen to the album whenever they came over.

Lastufka said taking on the role and getting to work with the full symphony has been an “adventure.”

“It’s thrilling. It’s incredible,” she said. “The first time we sang with the orchestra I was blown away. And the chorus, too, all to those people making music, it’s an amazing feeling.”

Thirty-five singers from the Juneau Symphony Chorus will perform as well as soloists Aaron Abella, Bill Garry, Brett Crawford, Jay Query, Chris Murray, Emily Smith, Frank Katasse, Erin Tripp and Kathleen Wayne. The “semi-staged” description of the production comes from the fact that there will be no real set; the orchestra will be on stage, with the actors and singers performing in front of them.

Pickett said he chose “Sweeney Todd” in part because he knew the symphony’s first performance would be on or near Halloween weekend, and because the work is a personal favorite — he’s a big fan of musical theater in general.

“I grew up with it, and to me it’s the American art form. Jazz and musical theater — those are uniquely American. Musical theater comes from European forms... but the whole idea is an American thing. So I think it’s entirely appropriate for an orchestra to do.”

“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” debuted on Broadway in 1979 and eventually garnered eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Score; the album based on the original show won two Grammys. Sondheim based the musical on a Victorian story “The String of Pearls,” which is itself believed to have been based on a British myth.

For more information, visit www.juneausymphony.org.

Know and go

What: ”Sweeney Todd in Concert”

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 29 and 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 30. Concert conversations begin one hour prior to each performance.

Where: Juneau Douglas High School Auditorium

Tickets: Tickets available at Hearthside Books, Juneau Arts and Culture Center, and www.juneausymphony.org. Tickets also available at the door for $2 extra. Pay-as-you-can tickets phony.org phony.org available at the door for both performances.

Details: www.juneausymphony. org

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