Last season’s line-up at the Cape Fear Regional Theatre caused quite a buzz in the region. But that doesn’t compare to the hum that is going through the community as Sweeney Todd comes to the stage this week.
The show, which tells the story of love, when twisted, can go really, really wrong. Because at its heart, Sweeney Todd is a love story. For those who are only familiar with the Johnny Depp movie, the stage production will be quite the wake-up call.
“Because of the Johnny Depp movie, there is a perception of the play as being a horror tale,” said Tom Quaintance, the theatre’s artistic director, who is also directing the show. “But that’s because that is the direction the producer of the movie leaned. Much of what is delightful about the play winds up cut out.”
Quaintance characterizes the play as a dark comedy.
“There is no question that this is a horror story. Bad things happen. But the scope is so much broader, and as such can appeal to a much wider crowd,” continued Quaintance. “The play is a contrast between this dark character Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett who sees almost everything as bright and funny. She is the light to his dark. There is a lot of heart in this show, even in its darkness.”
The depth of the show’s content made prep work for the show very important. Months leading up to the casting of the show, local actors were giddy over the possibility of performing in the show. The auditions were intense. The performers seeking a role had to have the total package. That was particularly true of the lead roles of Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett.
“These two parts are towering roles,” said Quaintance. “You can be a great vocalist and be in the show in the ensemble. But for these roles, you really need to be a vocalist, actor and a lot more. These roles are just that hard.”
To that end, Quaintance took the auditions to New York City.
“I’m always interested in getting the best people in the show, no matter where they come from, but for this show, we needed the absolute best all the way across the board. If we couldn’t have found those folks, we could not have done it.”
Quaintance knows what he is talking about, as he has been working on and with this show since early May through a partnership with Playmakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill. Over the summer, Quaintance worked with a student production of Sweeney Todd at Playmakers, and now, he is using the experience he garnered with that show to make this production even better.
“Going into rehearsals for this production, my time in Chapel Hill really helped move the process along very fast,” said Quaintance. “Actors, like those we have cast in this show tend to rise to the occasion, but having the past experience has really helped to make this a wonderful process.”
Quaintance said that while he learned from the summer production, what the CFRT patrons will see is a very different animal.
“This is not a restaging of that production,” he said. “It is a very different show because there are very different actors. I learned a lot of traps that can get in your way in producing this show, so we are not getting stuck.”
While Quaintance was doing his homework, the cast was doing theirs. Steve Minow, who recently played the role of the Aviator in The Little Prince has the lead role of Sweeney Todd. Leanne Borghesi, an actor, vocalist and vocal coach, has the role of Mrs. Lovett. They are joined by former Miss North Carolina, Hailey Best, who plays the role of Lucy, Zack Burkhardt playing the role of Tobias Ragg and Ken Griggs playing Judge Turpin.
Playing Lucy in Sweeney Todd is a lifetime goal for Best.
“This is really a different role for me,” said Best. “I do a lot of roles as the love interest, like Elle in Legally Blonde, but his show really challenges me. I had to sit down and prepare before I got here. I couldn’t have walked into these rehearsals without knowing the music.”
The role of Lucy calls for a vocalist who is a “stratospheric soprano.” Best said the songs and music have a lot of context, it’s not always pretty, but it’s deep and complicated.
“You can’t sing this role and just sound pretty,” she said. “The lyrics are very important. They tell the story without being too obvious.”
Borghesi likens the score to a feast. “The more you can prepare to get ready for dinner, the more you can eat,” she said.
While the featured artists carry a lot of the weight in the show, the large ensemble, which is largely comprised of local actors, more than meets them half way.
“The ensemble has some of the hardest music, but they are incredible. They are killing it,” said Best, who related that she was blown away on the first night of rehearsals with the depth and skill of the local vocalists.
In conjunction with the play’s opening, the theatre has planned several events.
On Monday, Oct. 28, patrons are invited to join Quaintance for a look Behind the Curtain. Quaintance and other artists will host a dialogue with patrons about the show. The event begins at 6 p.m. at the Headquarters Library at 300 Maiden Lane, and those interested in learning more behind the scenes are invited to “nibble and sip” their way through the conversation. There is no fee for this event and reservations are not required.
With comedic irony that mirrors the show, the CFRT slated a Halloween Preview Night on Thursday, Oct. 31. Attendees are invited to dress in costume, and to donate ... blood that is. Between 5 and 7 p.m., the Cape Fear Valley Mobile Blood Donor bus will be at the theatre. Those interested in participating in the blood drive can schedule their donation at www.savingliveslocally.org or call 910-323-4234, ext. 222 or just show up
For tickets or more information, visit the CFRT website at www.cfrt.org or call the box office at 323-4233. The box office is open Tuesday-Saturday from 2-6:30 p.m.