OCT season opens with musical thriller
Murder and madness meet musicality in Ocala Civic Theatre’s ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.’
From the opening notes of dissonant organ music, there’s no doubt that “Sweeney Todd” is a musical thriller that delves into the darker themes of the human experience. But there’s one thing you won’t miss in Ocala Civic Theatre’s (OCT) production of the Tony Award-winning musical: gratuitous gore. Instead, Director Greg Thompson leans into the humanity of the characters in this quick-paced tribute to the late composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.
“People think ‘Sweeney’ is about murder and gore,” said Thompson, OCT’s executive and artistic director. “But we are not making this production gory, because ‘Sweeney’ is not about any of that. It’s about love. It’s about revenge. It’s really about what you’re willing to do for love.”
To be fair, what the title character is willing to do for love and revenge is cold-blooded murder, wielded with the sterling silver straight razors the barber calls his “friends.” Yet, as the body count goes up, the audience is spared copious amounts of blood.
“I think it’s more powerful that it’s all done in symbolism,” Thompson said. “You hear the sound when the blood pours; it’s very visceral. You see the color of the blood. It’s much more symbolic and metaphorical.”
As the large ensemble of 20 invites you to “attend the tale of Sweeney Todd” in the opening number, you’re transported not to Victorian times, but–surprise!–to 1970s London. Scenic and Projection Designer Tyler Stentiford’s set is industrial brick punctuated by pops of color and flashes of fire on the projection screen backdrop. The costumes by OCT Resident Costume Designer Amanda Jones are rich in the textures of the time: leather, corduroy, velour and denim, with the signature silhouettes of ’70s bell bottoms.
‘“Sweeney Todd’ is based on a 1972 melodrama by Christopher Bond, and then Sondheim’s ‘Sweeney Todd’ came to the stage in 1979,” Thompson said. “I thought, it was born in the ’70s so let’s set it in the ’70s, and it works well. I also think ‘Sweeney’ is so durable and we get to explore that. There’s a universality about its message, about the humanity that’s represented.”
With more than 80% of the show set to music, the talented cast has a chance to display the breadth of their vocalism with live accompaniment by an 11-piece orchestra led by Jason Bartosic, musical director, keyboardist and conductor.
Although Sweeney Todd is “the demon barber of Fleet Street,” OCT newcomer Jeremy E. Scarbrough plays the title character as less a demon than a complex, tortured man who calculates revenge only after all hope is lost. His musicality is masterful as he sings in no less than 16 musical numbers throughout the show.
His sidekick, the garrulous Mrs. Lovett, is played by OCT veteran Jessica Mongerio, who called Lovett her “bucket-list role.” She’s loquaciously lyrical with excellent enunciation in a Cockney accent, giddily dancing an upbeat two-step while singing about “shepherd’s pie peppered with actual shepherd on top.” Todd and Lovett harmonize beautifully, with her character adding levity to his brooding, formidable presence in a long leather trench coat.
Roe Agnese’s return to the OCT stage is a commanding portrayal of a female Pirelli, described by Jones as the show’s “most fashion forward and flamboyant character.” She’s vocally and visually stunning in an emerald velour corduroy pantsuit, complete with plaid vest and funky patterned blouse.
The show’s sweetness comes from the young lovers, Anthony (Caleb Spivey) and Johanna (Adrienne Hebert). He’s eager and tender in his “Johanna” solo; she’s endearingly naïve as the proverbial bird in the gilded cage, imploring, “Let me sing!”
OCT rates this show PG-13 and recommends it for those high school age and older.
Sweeney Todd is live on stage Sept. 7-24 at the Ocala Civic Theatre, 4337 E. Silver Springs Blvd.
For tickets and more information, visit ocalacivictheatre.com or call (352) 236-2274.