Broadway west

A pro local production of Sondheim musical

The butcher and the baker: Sweeney Todd (Michael Burchett) and Mrs. Lovett (Ashiah Scharaga).

The butcher and the baker: Sweeney Todd (Michael Burchett) and Mrs. Lovett (Ashiah Scharaga).

Photo by Jennifer Redeker

California Regional Theatre presents Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Friday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m. and Sunday 2 p.m. through Oct. 13
Tickets: $20-$30

CUSD Centerfor the Arts
1475 East Ave.

With its current production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, California Regional Theatre once again has shown that it is the only theater group in the North State that can successfully mount a full-scale production of a Broadway musical.

Credit its owner and executive director, Bob Maness, for having the vision that such a company could succeed in the North State. He has a knack for finding talent and knows how to make good use of the Center for the Arts, the most technologically advanced and spacious stage in Chico and, indeed, the entire region.

Now Maness and company have taken on one of the most demanding of all musicals, Steven Sondheim’s marvelously macabre Sweeney Todd, which debuted in 1979 and has been staged thousands of times since. And, once again, director Maness has made the parts of a stunning production fit together with almost frictionless ease. This is community theater with a professional gloss.

Set in London in the mid-19th century, the musical—an adaptation by Sondheim (with book by Hugh Wheeler) of a 1972 stage rendering of a Victorian-era tale—centers on Benjamin Barker (played by Michael Burchett), who, hoping to remain anonymous, is now calling himself Sweeney Todd. He is returning to England with revenge on his mind after spending 15 years in exile in Australia. He was sent there by the amoral Judge Turpin (Jim Sandiford), who raped and murdered Todd’s wife, Lucy, and made their daughter, Johanna (Kaila Davidson), a ward of the court confined to the judge’s home.

When he disembarks at the dock, he is joined by young Anthony Hope (Joseph Slupski), whose life he had saved during a storm. Anthony subsequently glimpses Johanna framed in a window and falls in love with her—as she later does with him.

Meanwhile, Sweeney Todd returns to his old stomping grounds on Fleet Street, where he sets up a barbering business above Mrs. Lovett’s meat-pie shop. Unbenownst to his customers, the barber chair in which they sit is designed to enable Todd to slit their throats and then send their dead bodies down a chute that empties into Mrs. Lovett’s bakery on the floor below. Thus he disposes of all those who had anything to do with his wife’s death.

Mrs. Lovett (Ashiah Scharaga), in turn, welcomes this new source of meat and money and becomes Todd’s partner in murder.

Most of this plot development, it should be noted, is conveyed in song. Some 80 percent of the story is told by the lyrics deployed in some 27 musical numbers. Fortunately, all nine of the principal players have great voices, as do the seven members of the ensemble who portray the neighborhood chorus.

Another aspect of this production that stands out is the richness of the individual portrayals. A good example is Scharaga (full disclosure: She is a reporter for the CN&R). When we first meet her, she is a virtual whirlwind, pounding dough with a rolling pin and commanding the stage while singing “The Worst Pies in London” with consummate skill.

I was especially impressed by Burchett, whose deep bass-baritone seemed to manifest Todd’s inner darkness, and Natalie Kusie, who played the child-like Tobias Ragg and sang as sweetly as the birds he loved.

Maness designed the elaborate but highly flexible set, with its two levels, several sets of stairs and fabled death chute, and Olivia Cerullo served as music director—a formidable challenge given the amount of music in the production.

Which brings us back to Sondheim, the greatest musical playwright of the modern era. As you might imagine, the music in Sweeney Todd is anything but warm and fuzzy. Sondheim’s genius is in his ability to make us enjoy it despite the dark themes.