Asking actor Andrew Varela to describe the character of Sweeney Todd to his mother as if she hadn’t seen the Stephen Sondheim musical elicits an easy smile. Still, Varela generates a plausible, and even sympathetic description.

“I’d say that he is a man who was hurt badly by a very bad guy. When he gets his chance, he seeks his revenge, but it doesn’t happen the way you want it to,” Varela says. “His motives were pure up to the last moment, and he’s also a very, very good barber.”

Varela fails to mention the human meat pies so central to the plot.

For the actor playing the title role in the upcoming Skylight Music Theatre production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, that may be either an oversight or matter of discretion. After all, it is his mother he’s hypothetically speaking to.

Either way, it’s a role into which Varela can’t wait to sink his teeth.

“This has been my Moby Dick role for 30 years, and I have finally reached an age where I think I can understand and interpret it correctly,” says Varela, whose Broadway credits include the title role in The Phantom of the Opera and the roles of Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert in different productions of Les Misérables.

“I plan to suck the marrow from the bones of this role,” he adds, “so to speak.”

Challenging, dark — and comic

Sondheim’s 1979 musical thriller traces its roots back to The String of Pearls, a serialized story that first appeared in a “penny dreadful” — that genre of English pulp fiction published during the 19th century that sold for 1 cent per copy.

However, the multiple Tony Award-winning musical version draws much of its content, structure and title from Christopher Bond’s 1973 play Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It’s considered the most challenging of Sondheim’s works and also the darkest of dark comedies.

Sweeney Todd is also a true-genius piece of musical theater,” says Mathew Ozawa, who is directing the Skylight production. “It’s a dark, but comic look at a very deep part of humanity. I see it as a morality tale that keeps asking questions of how far someone will go for revenge.”

The story, in short, concerns the character of Sweeney Todd, formerly known as Benjamin Barker, a celebrated London barber with a lovely wife Lucy and adoring daughter Johanna (Kelly Britt). Judge Turpin (Randall Dodge), who secretly lusts after Lucy, convicts Barker on a trumped-up charge and sends him away for 15 years’ hard labor at the Australian penal colony at Botany Bay.

When Barker returns to London as Sweeney Todd, he discovers that Lucy has committed suicide and Johanna has become a ward of the judge. The barber swears his revenge on the judge and his servant, Beadle Bramford (Ben Tajnai).

Unfortunately, several other people find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time and also suffer Sweeney’s wrath. The whole meat pie solution becomes a marriage of commercial convenience between the barber and his landlady, Mrs. Lovett (Christina Hall).

The secret to understanding — and even appreciating — the character of Sweeney Todd is to understand the backstory that occurs prior to the start of the action, say both Varela and Ozawa. Such realization adds to the empathy one can generate for the character and his plight.

“I am a father and happily married man who has realized some semblance of success,” Varela says. “I can conjure up rage at the injustice of having that all taken away from me. Compound that with what life must have been like in the penal colony and I can understand how that rage can metastasize to Sweeney’s life.”

Ozawa agrees: “I identify with Sweeney before we meet him. People forget that these people have come from somewhere else. I can relate to the struggles people go through before and during the piece.”

Industrial, monochromatic production design

Late 19th-century London provides a fertile ground for Ozawa’s visual imagination when it comes to the show’s production design and color palette. It was the midst of the Industrial Revolution, a period of modern enlightenment that nevertheless disenfranchised many segments of society and created a “fight or flight” mindset among all but the wealthiest citizens, the director says.

Ozawa visualizes an almost colorless set, redolent of the coal-smoke-choked London backstreets and alarming poverty levels. The scenery will be stripped and machine-like, with much of the color coming from the lavish costumes, which also are used to express the various class distinctions.

Todd’s apartment and salon will be on the second floor above Mrs. Lovett’s kitchen, with a trap-door rigged to deliver the dead bodies from chair to kettle. Set as a tower, it will be flanked by two other more skeletal towers reflecting clean, cage-like presences while still managing to capture the squalor of the city’s lower classes.

“We’re playing up the idea of Sweeney as a killing machine, as a tie to the industrial revolution,” Ozawa says. “There is a meticulous, machine-like quality to the process that leads to the pie-making and I have been urging actors to embrace this connection.”

But that’s not to say the director will be ignoring the humor of the piece, which he says is most obviously found in the Sondheim’s music and libretto.

“The humor naturally arises,” Ozawa says. “You can’t live in that darkness for too long as an audience member. There have to be moments of levity.

“Plus, I am a very wacky and jokey director,” he adds. “I want to create an environment in which people are freer.”

Ozawa also will be bringing in additional lighting and plans to use it to its most dramatic effect.

“The way the lighting is used will be shocking to audience members,” Ozawa adds. “It will be very Broadway and razor-sharp in its execution.”

Of course, that will be well in keeping with the demon barber’s favorite instrument.

On stage

Skylight Music Theatre’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street runs May 19–June 11 at the Cabot Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee. Tickets are $32–$77 and can be purchased by calling 414-291-7800 or by visiting tickets.broadwaythetrecenter.com.

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