Demon barber takes the stage just in time

Jerry McBride/Durango Herald

Masked chorus members surround Joey Panelli as the murderous title character in Durango High School’s production of “Sweeney Todd.”

By Judith Reynolds
Special to the Herald

“Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.” So begins the macabre musical about the Demon Barber of Fleet Street now playing at Durango High School.

Dickensian in nature, the work is about revenge, but it doesn’t wrap up neatly. There’s no arrival of a rich uncle to save the day, nor does the villain convert to a life of goodness. Instead, Sweeney Todd is grounded in Greek tragedy, and Thespian Troupe 1096 delivers on that promise.

For any company, “Sweeney Todd” is a demon of a musical. Complex and vocally challenging, it is filled with a multitude of overlapping scenes, sudden key changes and shifting meters. And that’s just the music. When it opened on Broadway in 1979, the ink-black satire puzzled producers. No one thought it would succeed with a public generally expecting sunny characters and happy endings.

Buoyed on the wings of Stephen Sondheim’s sophisticated score and Hugh Wheeler’s adaptation of a Christopher Bond play, the fable of injustice and revenge went on to win many awards including Best Musical of 1980. Since then, it has enjoyed scores of revivals and a movie version starring Johnny Depp.

Set in 1846 in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, the DHS production features a black London skyline and stone-cold evocations of storied shops and a thoroughfare.

From the opening organ prelude, the work unfolds like a classic tragedy. Sweeney Todd, alias Benjamin Barker (forcefully played by Joey Panelli), returns from 15 years in exile on false charges. Bitter and obsessed, he seeks revenge for his wife’s death, his daughter’s disappearance and his imprisonment. With shop owner Mrs. Lovett (the wonderfully comic Rosie Schultz), he stumbles on a grand scheme. Together, they concoct his retribution and her business success. It’s a Halloween horror story and definitely not family entertainment.

Director Kristin Winchester has crafted a laudable production with the help of technical director Walker White, musical director Tom Keyser and choreographer Suzy DiSanto, among others. The creative team has enhanced the work’s theatricality by blending stylized and realistic elements.

Dressed formally in black and white, the chorus wears masks, uses freeze-action and periodically advances the tale in a straight-forward, marcato delivery. Red scarves symbolize the barber’s bloody business.

On opening night, Conductor Kyser and his musicians were performance ready. But they contended with an unexpected shortfall. Half the players were on the football field playing with the DHS band.

Miraculously, the reduced pit orchestra did very well with five strings, pianist Ivy Walker’s splendid accompaniment and DHS faculty member Katharine Reed doubling on brass and percussion. That Sondheim’s challenging score was even attempted is something of a miracle for high school musicians.

“Sweeney Todd” borders on opera, so the singing is challenging, too. Some of the principals had difficulty with range, but everyone mastered the complex key and metric changes.

The daunting patter songs were clear and the ballads beautiful, especially in the hands of Evatt Salinger as Anthony and Emma Costello as Toby. Emma Buchanan revealed a clear, more lyric soprano for Johanna than heard in earlier roles. The only true sound problem centered on uneven amplification – especially in the chorus. In the long run, that can be fixed if supportive patrons step up to augment DHS equipment.

Credit Winchester, her creative team and the students, on and off stage, for a successful production of one of our era’s most challenging and thought-provoking musicals.

Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic. Reach her at

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