Jenkins Parkland Sweeney Todd

Matt Hester, in the title role, disposes of one of his victims during rehearsal for the Parkland Theatre production of ‘Sweeney Todd’ at the Harold and Jean Miner Theatre the college in Champaign.

If you go What:

  • Parkland Theatre presents ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.’ Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler, based on an adaptation by Christopher Bond, directed by Jeff Dare.

When:

  • 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday and April 21-22; 3 p.m. April 16 and 23.

Where:

  • Harold and Jean Miner Theatre, Parkland College, 2400 W. Bradley Ave., C.

Tickets:

  • $25 for adults, $22 for seniors, youths, veterans and students.

Box office: tickets.

parkland.edu, 217-351-2528.

Given the violence we are exposed to on a daily basis, it may be difficult to imagine the shock some 1979 audience members experienced when “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” first opened on Broadway.

Why else would newspaper critics of the time have focused so intently on the musical’s dark themes and violent acts?

Based on a “penny dreadful” legend published in the mid-1800s, the murderous story of a mad barber was converted into numerous stage adaptations before Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler began work on their musical version of Christopher Bond’s 1970 play.

Nowadays, the musical is a classic of the repertory and often touted as Sondheim’s masterpiece. Whatever Grand Guignol effects remain are well known and treated by audiences almost as a Halloween prank, replete with nervous laughs as blood begins to flow.

But critical skittishness remains.

In director Jeff Dare’s production, which opened Thursday evening at Parkland College, blood flows freely and sometimes with gleeful abandon. At the final dress rehearsal seen by The News-Gazette, sound-system troubles haunted the Harold and Jean Miner Theatre and kept performers slightly off-kilter in a work that requires tightly focused musicianship.

Music director Cheryl Forest Morganson has an onerous task: The music in “Sweeney Todd” essentially never stops, and it drives every moment. It is very nearly an opera, with complex, lilting melodies counterpointed by horror-movie-influenced dissonance. The musical is nearly sung-through, with the score providing a kind of soundscape for the dialogue.

Molly Ilten-Fullan’s scenic design is a multi-purpose wall of windows and playing levels. Executed in neutral colors with a texture that suggests corrosion, Ilten-Fullan’s setting allows lighting designer Rob Perry to fill the air with dramatic bursts of color that underpin the musical’s impact. Ilten-Fullan’s windows perform double duty: they provide an oppressive framework that recalls faceless buildings filled with nameless occupants, and they are a reflective portal for Perry’s dramatic color palette.

Costume designer Thom Schnarre employs a dynamic look that is part Edwardian and part steampunk with floral prints, paisleys and loud stripes that defy you to attempt to look away.

The dark heart of this production is Matt Hester as Sweeney, a man so embittered by life and addicted to vengeance that his visage appears to carry thunderclouds before it. The journey crafted by the musical’s authors prevents Sweeney from enjoying his victories, which empty him until he is nearly a shell. Inside that shell, we need to see some light if we are to experience anything like the reactions accorded heroes of the drama. But is Sweeney a hero?

Nicole Morgan is Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney’s partner in crime who happily turns the remains of Sweeney’s victims into delicious meat pies. Morgan wavers a bit in the early going, but her vocal strength rises as the performance unfolds. Her lightheartedness helps lift the action and provides a needed counterpoint to Sweeney’s dark impulses.

Tina Radi and Jacob Deters as the star-crossed lovers Johanna and Anthony provide the romantic pleasures audiences expect from musicals, with Radi’s rendition of “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” giving particular pleasure. “Johanna,” one of Sondheim’s best-known songs, gives Deters an opportunity to show his fine vocal range.

In this era of trigger warnings (and this production has several in the program), Michael Steen’s powerful Judge Turpin deserves a warning of his own. Steen’s Turpin may make your flesh crawl as he fawns over and leers at the lovely, young Johanna. A scene of self-flagellation, in which the character is dressed in what appears to be a woman’s slip, is startling to behold.

Bryan Goode’s Beadle is suitably smug and officious as one who lords over lesser beings while simpering in the presence of the judge. Young Alex Murphy as Toby has a lovely moment with Mrs. Lovett as they sing “Not While I’m Around.” Adrian Rochelle offers a lively take on Sweeney’s rival, Pirelli.

During the finale, the cast gazes at the audience and in a somewhat accusatory tone tells us that there are Sweeneys everywhere. “To seek revenge may lead to hell / But everyone does it, if seldom as well.”

In 1979, the critic for the New York Times wrote, “the point is unproven.”

Today, we just might think, “point taken.”

Jeffrey Eric Jenkins is professor and chair of theater studies at the University of Illinois, faculty affiliate of the Discovery Partners Institute and president of the International Association of Theatre Critics. He can be reached at jej@illinois.edu, and you can follow him on Twitter (@Crrritic).