Musical bakes horror into meat pies

The real scares will come the night after Halloween, when the demon barber of Fleet Street comes to campus.

Starting Thursday night, a Marvin Center stage will transform into a bloodthirsty barber’s shop for “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” – a musical teeming with gore, angst and cannibalism.

Popularized by a 2007 Tim Burton film adaptation featuring Johnny Depp, the musical features Sweeney Todd, who lures his London neighbors into his barbershop and slashes their throats. His accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, a pie maker, bakes the bodies into pastry dough to hide the evidence.

A 12-foot cube set in the middle of the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre rotates automatically, simultaneously serving as the pie shop, Mrs.

Media Credit: Becky Crowder | Senior Staff Photographer

Lovett’s parlor, the furnace area where the sinister pair burns the bodies and the streets of 19th century London. Sweeney Todd’s barber shop sits atop the cube – looming menacingly above the set and audience.

“He’s pervasive. He’s there all the time,” director Muriel Von Villas, a part-time faculty member in the music department, said. “Sort of like a puppeteer, watching from above and manipulating everything.”

The show’s widespread fame made it a strong choice for the main stage, she said.

“It’s fun and gory, and there’s a lot of good components to this,” Von Villas said. “I wanted it to be ugly and get uglier.”

An intricate set, a large cast and rehearsal time lost when Hurricane Sandy shut down the University added extra complexity to Sondheim’s challenging score and subjects.

“There are safety hazards,” Von Villas said. “There’s a lot of stage combat. We’re dealing with platforms. We’re dealing with a 12-foot cube with no railing on top. We’ve got people coming out of shoots.”

Media Credit: Becky Crowder | Senior Staff Photographer

The cast prepared with stage combat rehearsals and practice stunts, but the automated set comes with dangers that are harder to control.

“The set is completely automated, and timing the scene shifts with this automation is a nightmare,” Von Villas said. “There are assets and liabilities to having something so complicated.”

Starring as Sweeney Todd is Michael Noel, who said he has practiced ominous vocals – and getting soaked in blood.

“I’ve got so much of it on my hands at the end of every performance,” he said, adding that he has mastered the art of making his throat-slashing look theatrical yet realistic.

He built his take on Sweeney Todd by watching past adaptations, including the Broadway revival and the film. Noel said his priority was to stay faithful to Stephen Sondheim’s text, which showcases the author’s mastery of diction and rhymes.

Noel also said audience members only familiar with the film may be surprised by the more dynamic character he presents.

“With close ups and cameras, there’s a little bit more opportunity on film. [Johnny Depp] did it with an incredibly blank, shallow emotion,

Media Credit: Becky Crowder | Senior Staff Photographer

so he used a lot of subtlety in his expressions. But with the stage and the audience being 50 to 60 feet away and the lights on you, you’ve got to be a little bit bigger with things,” Noel said.

Senior Lizzy Marmon plays Mrs. Lovett. She said excitement for the show has been building since she was cast in May.

Marmon’s final moment in the play – which reveals a twist in her relationship with Sweeney Todd – is one she called daunting.

“My final moment is pretty terrifying. Trying to tackle that and what that desperation is, is what I’ve most been faced with,” Marmon said.

To portray her character, Marmon said she pulled from a number of sources, ultimately developing her own Mrs. Lovett with a bubbly, over-the-top take.

For both actors, this is the first time they will be working with such a complicated stage.

“Standing inside the cube and having it go around and hopping in and out of it is fun, it’s like a tilt-a-whirl, but it’s also a big piece of machinery that we try to avoid not being bowled over by. But I trust this crew so much,” Marmon said.

Noel spends much of the show atop the 12-foot, railing-less cube. Though at first the experience was intimidating, he said he is now confident.

Premiering the day after Halloween, the show is appropriately gory. Fake blood and theatrical effects contribute to an ominous, gruesome atmosphere.

“It’s a good thing we’re going up right after Halloween, “ Noel said. “I don’t think anyone is going to go home with nightmares about this, but hopefully there will be a bit of a moment when that blood comes out that people are going to be shocked by.”

Sweeney Todd runs Nov. 1 through Nov. 4 in the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre.

This article was updated Nov. 1, 2012 to reflect the following:

The Hatchet mischaracterized the play’s director and part-time faculty member in the music department Muriel Von Villas as a male. She is in fact a female. We regret this error.

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