Finding the humanity in ‘Sweeney Todd’

Provided photo

Provided photo

By Janelle Faignant

The dark and rainy streets of London make the perfect setting for Stephen Sondheim’s haunting tale of revenge, “Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” The story of a barber unjustly detained by a malicious judge who wanted his wife, the barber later adopts the name Sweeney Todd, and takes his revenge on the lives of his clients.

Main Street Arts Artistic Director David Stern put a creative twist on the bloody tale, making it less gore, more folklore. Stern is directing “Sweeney Todd,” which he called both similar and also markedly different from the 2007 movie of the same title, which won a number of awards.

“Tim Burton’s movie accentuated the bloodiness,” Stern said in a recent interview. “And I am pushing in the opposite direction. The mediums of theater and film are so different that our choices have to be different.”

Numerous professional theaters from throughout the region collaborated to present the Sondheim classic, which opens at 7:30 p.m. tonight (March 16) at the Bellows Falls Opera House.

While Burton made a character of the blood with close-ups and gratuitous shots, for Stern it’s more of a morality play about why revenge is a failed strategy, and his production reflects that.

“I wanted to have a fable quality,” Stern said, “a kind of ‘Hansel and Gretel’ story. The play opens with ‘Attend the Tale of Sweeney Todd,’ and we need to tell it as a sort of legend.”

And so the murders in the story are marked by bright red fabric pulled from the shirt of the character slain.

“I turned the razors into dancers,” Stern said. “They’re real characters, so whenever the razors come out, these dancers activate and they are the mechanisms for the pulling of the blood out of the shirts.”

As for Sweeney Todd himself, Stern didn’t have an image in mind of who Sweeney was when he cast the role, which went to an actor from the River Theater in Charlestown, N.H.

“I don’t think there’s only one way to play that role,” he said. “My style is to help whoever’s playing a role discover the pieces of themselves that connect with it.”

Stern focused on an amalgam of facets that define talent, like vulnerability, sensitivity, and the ability to take a risk in exposing one’s inner self in the hopes that the audience can then experience it themselves.

“I help them do that by building a safe space to work in,” Stern said, “challenging them by letting them know when I don’t believe what they’re doing, and helping them see a way to make what they’re doing deeply believable.”

The dark story has a sense of humor to match, and the Chicago Tribune called the stage show “fun, creepy and pleasing to the ear. The lyrics take care of the rest.”

Bellows Falls Opera House

Main Street Arts presents “Sweeney Todd” at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, March 16-18 and 23-25, at the Bellows Falls Opera House, 7 The Square in Bellows Falls. Ticket prices vary; call 802-869-2960, or go online to