Johnny Depp’s performance in the movie adaptation of Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber of Fleet Street pushed the Tony Award winning musical back into the limelight for another generation of followers.
Sweeney Todd’s story first appeared as a series of short stories in 1846 in England’s “penny dreadfuls.” These stories held the name because they were cheap to buy and usually lacked depth of plot.
Patrick Dunae describes the stories: “Penny dreadfuls encouraged anti-social attitudes and criminal behavior in the young, and although initially the dreadfuls were written for all ages, by the latter decades of the 1800s had morphed into boys’ periodicals read mostly by the lower class” (Victorian Studies 22:2, 1979).
Sweeney Todd’s murderous antics alongside Nellie Lovett’s capitalistic criminal behaviors fit the stereotype of the penny dreadfuls: revenge meets profit.
Although the storyline is not for the faint or weak-stomached, Weaver’s vocal and acting talent overshadows the dark-natured plot.
“I think that the gruesomeness and the actual thing that is going on is secondary,” said Weaver Drama Teacher Lindsey Clinton-Kraack. “The true artistry of the play is what stands out.”
“The music score is really hard. This is why most high schools don’t do this play — not because of the storyline.”
Clinton-Kraack emphasized that even though the movie was visually gruesome, the play’s focus is on the artistry.
“The artistry will overwhelm people, not the blood,” said Clinton-Kraack. “The idea the play presents is a little disturbing, but the vocal talent of these high-schoolers will blow people away.”
Travis Neese as Sweeney Todd and Maria Wood as Mrs. Lovett bring their individual talent to the parts, but acknowledged that the dark nature of the play was challenging.
“The most challenging part of playing Sweeney comes with the fact that he is such a dark character,” said Neese. “I’ve never had to deal with that much anger, but it is rewarding to tell the story because Sweeney really shows that acting on impulse is not always a good thing.”
Even though Wood struggled to identify with her character as well, she still experienced rewards as she prepared for her role.
“The most rewarding part of this role has been that it instilled in me that this is really what I love doing,” said Wood. “It is the biggest part I’ve had, and it helped me to know I want to continue on in theatre.”
Weaver Academy’s focus on the fine arts allows these students to develop and to find their talents while expressing themselves freely on stage, even through their criminally-minded characters.
Although the penny dreadfuls were thought to have encouraged criminal behavior in the young in the 19th century, these 21st century students’ focus on the stage allows them to have a place to meet with others who share the same interests, thus instead of encouraging bad behaviors this penny dreadful has actually helped keep them out of trouble and focused on their passions.
“These kids do take the theatre department and the school seriously. They keep their studies up, work on props, costumes, music, and lines. They are here till 10:00 at night,” said Clinton-Kraack. “This is a serious collaboration of effort for kids this age — for the process is as important as the end result.”
Show times: March 11-13 and March 18-20 at 7:00 p.m.
Tickets: $12.00 (in advance or at the door)
Map to Weaver Academy
Parent guide: This show is recommended for middle-school aged and up