A second slice: Ensemble Theatre takes on Sondheim and ‘Sweeney Todd’

 David Studwell and Heather Ayers are two of the actors performing in Ensemble Theatre Company's "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street." David Bazemore photo

David Studwell and Heather Ayers are two of the actors performing in Ensemble Theatre Company’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”
David Bazemore photo

Last week Santa Barbara audiences sat transfixed by the odd blend of dance and theater that was Adam Barruch’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” at the Lobero Theatre. In the audience watching the performance was Ensemble Theatre’s Jonathan Fox, who just that day was rehearsing his own version of Stephen Sondheim’s bloody and dark musical, set to open this coming Thursday. It was one of those weird coincidences in Santa Barbara theater than happens now and then – like two productions of “Other Desert Cities” in 2015, one at the Rubicon, one at PCPA – despite every company trying for a unique season.

“It’s kind of a funny story,” says Mr. Fox, just before rolling into a story of schedules, contracts, dropping a previous plan, and thinking of returning to the world of Stephen Sondheim. “A Little Night Music” was the first performance at The New Vic. Rick Mokler, some 20 years ago, had put on a production of “Sweeney Todd” at SBCC, but it had never returned to our city.

“It’s not an easy one to pull off but I thought it’d be interesting for the community at large,” he says. “And we got the rights, and then we got a call from the Lobero asking if we wanted to co-promote this, and we said what?”

Mr. Fox saw these two weeks of “Sweeney Todd” as an opportunity. “I thought it would be good if people went and saw (Barruch’s dance version) and then come see ours, to see the story in two different forms,” he said. “We’re doing the full musical, but an intimate version.”

The full production features an opera’s worth of extras, but Mr. Fox has stripped that down to a cast of ten.

“There’s something about the immediacy of it that creates a tension and just a closer perspective between the audience and performers,” he says, mentioning a production in London that was performed in an actual pie shop, and a brief search he did to find a pie sponsor, one “not” made of human meat, of course.

Sondheim is a tricky and complex composer. “Audiences really have to pay attention,” Mr. Fox says. “He has a lot of fun with his lyrics, though he thinks like a director, and he thinks about character. So his choruses often have several people singing several different things at the same time. It’s a barrage of words.”

Close to an opera, almost all music, filled with grand emotions, most of them dark, “Sweeney Todd” demands good singers who are also good actors.

The role of Sweeney is played by David Studwell, who is both a good singer and actor, and who Mr. Fox says projects a vulnerability necessary for the character to work. “Audiences need to side with him,” he says. “Even thought he is a mass murderer . . . David could handle the material.”

Mr. Studwell was recently seen on PCPA stages as the lead in “Man of La Mancha.” He was suggested by Matthew Meckes, Ensemble’s music director, and auditioned down in Los Angeles. There are more PCPA ties to this production in the crew, as well as in the barber chair dragged out of storage and looking appropriately grim, even in the bright morning light of the Alhecama’s rehearsal stage. (The former home of Ensemble still gets used for pre-tech rehearsals, having been transformed into a much more open space.)

Norman Large, who plays the judge, has played Sweeney in the past, and is delighted to be back in a different role. Heather Ayers, who was in both “A Little Night Music” and “Intimate Apparel” at the Ensemble, plays Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney’s accomplice.

“The music for me is a lot more challenging and dissonant,” she says. “It’s a whole different kind of challenge, but it’s fun though.”

Ensemble audiences love Sondheim. “A Little Night Music” produced one of Ensemble’s largest ticket sales. One of Mr. Fox’s reasons for developing the New Vic was to branch out into full musicals, so expect more in the future.

“I’m learning more and more and this is my third here,” he said. “Musicals and comedies are more difficult than straight plays to do, but they’re more fun.”

Don’t get him wrong, though, he loves doing Strindberg as well, but “this is a different kind of enjoyment.”

“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Oct. 25
Where: The New Vic, 33 W. Victoria St.
Cost: $35 and up
Information: 965-5400, www.etcsb.org

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