Arts & Culture

‘Sweeney Todd’ a delicious challenge for local actors

Tim and Karen Robu, longtime popular power couple of Wichita’s acting community, are working to prove that the couple that stays together slays together — at least on stage for Crown Uptown’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”

The ground-breaking, award-winning Stephen Sondheim musical, which runs through Oct. 20, created a considerable stir for its topics of murderous vengeance and cannibalism when it debuted on Broadway in 1979. This will be the first locally mounted stage production in the show’s 33-year history (the national tour came through two years ago after the 2007 Johnny Depp movie).

And the Robus said they are tackling what are probably the most challenging roles of their careers.

He’s Sweeney Todd, a mild-mannered 19th-century London barber driven to madness, murder and ultimately mayhem after an evil judge sends him to prison for life on trumped-up charges in order to have his lustful way with Sweeney’s beautiful wife.

And she’s Mrs. Lovett, a hardscrabble widow supporting herself selling meat pies who ultimately becomes Sweeney’s accomplice by baking his victims into her wares to dispose of the evidence — and turn a profit.

Sure, they said, the outlandish subject matter makes it hard to get audiences to care about such dark characters. But the real challenge is the notoriously complex — and typically Sondheim — score with constantly shifting tempos and keys, plus the often dissonant divide between vocal melodies and orchestral underscoring.

“This has been one of the most difficult pieces to learn because it is musically so difficult,” Karen Robu said. “Sondheim is dense, and his rhythms keep changing, seemingly with every line. He is fabulous, but he’s hard.”

Despite the difficulty, Tim Robu said “Sweeney Todd” has been one of his favorite shows since he first sang excerpts in the revue “Side by Side by Sondheim” three decades ago in Michigan.

“It’s been one of my favorites because of all the juicy twists and turns and the range of emotions,” he said. “Sweeney starts out as a normal person, but he becomes a monster because of all the things that are done to him. He’s like Darth Vader. He does villainous things, but he is more a tragic figure than a villain. The evil judge who steals his wife and destroys his family is the real bad guy.”

For her part, Karen Robu sees Mrs. Lovett as another victim of circumstances, but one who is amoral and opportunistic enough to embrace the dark side to benefit herself. She isn’t an instigator, but she is a go-along, get-along villain.

“My two daughters ask me why I would play such mean and crazy ladies, and the answer is simply that they are dramatically more interesting,” she said. “As real people, they would be horrible, but as characters, they are terrific.”

Playing Judge Turpin is operatic bass David Feiertag. He grew up in Pretty Prairie, studied under Vernon Yenne at Wichita State University and spent two decades based in New York singing with opera companies and orchestras across the country before returning to Kansas two years ago for family reasons.

“There is nothing redeeming about the judge,” said Feiertag, who recently sang with Wichita Grand Opera and is making his Crown debut.

“Playing him is like peeling an onion, layer after evil layer. He’s not a cartoon villain, but multi-dimensional. I enjoy playing that depth.”

Catherine Bartomeo, a WSU graduate student from New Orleans, makes her Crown debut playing Johanna, Sweeney’s blossoming daughter.

“Johanna is sweet and innocent, but she is beginning to learn to stand up for herself,” Bartomeo said. “The judge is the only father she has ever known, but she is under his thumb and afraid of the way he is beginning to look at her. She doesn’t start out strong, but she finds her strength. That’s the satisfying part for me.”

Mark Alpart, a recent graduate of Shenandoah Conservatory from New Jersey, plays the optimistic young sailor Anthony Hope, who befriends Sweeney and ends up falling in love with Johanna without realizing she is Sweeney’s daughter. Mario Castro, an operatically trained lyric tenor from New York, plays Adolfo Pirelli, a buffoonish braggart of a barber who becomes Sweeney’s rival. Ryan Naimy is scruffy urchin Toby, Pirelli’s abused helper who is taken in by Mrs. Lovett and stumbles across Sweeney’s horrors.

Directing is Matthew Rumsey, with music director Jesse Warkentin conducting a nine-member pit orchestra. Choreographer is Gigi Royle. Set design is by Michael Downs, lighting by Tyler Lessin, sound by David Muehl and costumes by Patty Parker.