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‘Sweeney Todd’ brings a slice of Broadway to Farmington

Randy West brings top-notch theater and talent to Four Corners

Producer Randy West’ introduces the Four Corners Musical Theatre Co. production of “Sweeney Todd” on Oct. 22. (David Edward Albright/Durango Herald)

Four Corners Musical Theatre Co. presented its high-energy production of “Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” to an excited crowd of 245 theater lovers on a warm autumn evening Oct. 22.

“This is a Teeny Todd,” producer Randy West told the audience in his introduction of the musical, joking that cast of 22 was half the number cast in the Broadway hit by his famous friend and mentor, Stephen Sondheim, who wrote all the music and lyrics.

With his vast high-level experience, West is committed to bringing the best and brightest to the Four Corners theater.

He was hired three years ago by the city of Farmington because he could manage and produce. He does double duty as director of the Farmington Civic Center and producer of the Four Corners company.

Randy West, left, Stephen Sondheim and George Furth, right, at work on “Merrily We Roll Along” in this photo from 1987. (Photo provided by Randy West)

“I was lucky enough – oh, boy – 38 years ago I was asked by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth to work on collaborating to develop a new version of their musical, ‘Merrily We Roll Along,’” West said in a phone interview.

“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. A Musical Thriller” (1979) is a musical adaptation by Sondheim of a play by the British playwright Christopher Bond. The show began on Broadway in 1979 and in London’s West End in 1980, winning awards including the Tony Award for Best Musical and the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Musical.

A movie production directed by Tim Burton and adapted from Sondheim's musical featured Johnny Depp as Sweeney Todd, Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett, as noted in Wikipedia.

James Aguilar, Civic Center usher and shift supervisor. (David Edward Albright/Durango Herald)

A multimedia screen backdrop and smoky plumes to simulate foggy London opened the musical. As the eerie organ hit a squealing pitch, the mysterious mood was set for “Sweeney Todd,” about an unjustly exiled barber who returns to 19th century London, seeking vengeance against the lecherous judge who framed him and ravaged his young wife.

His violent path to revenge leads him to Mrs. Lovett, the resourceful owner of a failing pie shop. Todd, consumed with a thirst for blood, opens a new barber practice above her “meat pie” shop. Her fortunes take an upturn when a “secret ingredient” creates a booming business.

The orchestra was composed of seven local musicians including Robert Beck, percussion; Sam Bader, trombone; Levi Brown, violin; Chris Dietrich, bass; John Patton, trumpet; Katie Patton, reeds; and Steven Zumbrun, musical director. The accomplished musicians opened the performance with a spirited blend of sinister sounds.

“It’s one of the most difficult books – in the business they’re called books – one of the most difficult repertoires there is,” said violinist Brown. He said the musicians have to turn 88 pages during the performance.

An impressive set design – incorporating props on wheels and a colorful backdrop with large screen to project images – created effects of bloody terror and mayhem. William West is credited for his work as multimedia coordinator.

West revealed his recruitment of James Sasser for lead as Sweeney Todd, who was in Houston playing lead in “South Pacific.”

“Sweeney Todd, Stephen Sondheim, Randy West – I’m there,” Sasser said.

Next, West contacted Anne Runolfsson – another “Broadway icon” to play Mrs. Lovett. Runolfsson played Carlotta in “Phantom of the Opera” and was an understudy for Julie Andrews in “Victor Victoria.” When Andrews developed vocal problems, she played the role with great success, achieving standing ovations for her 3½ octave range – like Andrews, West said.

“The (’Phantom’) audience was so fun that night … screaming, and we know that, we feel that energy,” West said.

James Aguilar, Civic Center shift supervisor and theater usher, has seen the production a couple of times.

“I think it’s a great performance,” Aguilar said. “I think everybody who comes out here will love it.”

The audience shared Aguilar’s enthusiasm.

“I thought it was a stunning performance, very professionally done, and the music was wonderful. … It was difficult music and complex,” Jan Patton said.

Rey Arellano and his partner, Virgina Padey, also were at the Civic Center.

“It was really good,” said Padey. “We try to come to all of them.”

Theater lovers Virginia Padey and Rey Arellano. (David Edward Albright/Durango Herald)

Actor Tanner Berry from Arkansas, who played Adolio Pirelli, said it was his fourth show with Four Corners Musical Theatre Co.

“It’s my first time doing the work of Stephen Sondheim with Randy. It’s just been one of the greatest privileges of my life. It’s just the best Halloween outing you could possibly ask for.”

He seemed equally struck by Farmington.

“It’s a wonderful town,” Berry said. “I mean turning the corner and getting to see a gorgeous, sunstruck cliffside. I mean you don’t get that in Arkansas.”

Actor Tanner Berry of Arkansas said the “Sweeney Todd” production was the first time he did the work of Stephen Sondheim with Randy West. (David Edward Albright/Durango Herald)

New York City resident James Sasser (Sweeney Todd) said it was his first trip to Farmington.

“It’s spectacular – I’ve not spent a lot of time in the high desert before, and I am just absolutely blown away – the people, everyone.”

Sasser said he’s known West for almost 30 years and worked with him in California as a kid.

“I have to say the quality of the talent and the people here, the company and the theater – is really remarkable,” Sasser said. “Even by New York standards. I’m blown away.”

James Sasser, who played Sweeney Todd, displays his Halloween spirit after the show on Oct. 22.. (David Edward Albright/Durango Herald)

Matthew Aaron (Judge Turpin), from New Jersey, took the long way to Farmington.

“I travel with my Huskies, so I drive out here every time Randy wants to work with me. Honestly, this is what actors love to do. It is hard theater … that is challenging and rewarding.”

West said the actors stay in “independent Airbnbs,” which is more cost-effective and homey.

“All the actors are looking to come back, and many of them are on their third or fourth Four Corners Theatre contract.”

“They love Farmington, they love New Mexico, especially in the summer,” when they can visit a wide variety of regional sites, like Monument Valley, the Petrified Forest, Mesa Verde National Park and Chaco Culture National Park.

West noted that the theater seems to have developed an increasingly regional audience.

“We’re pulling much more audience from Durango than we used to,” he said. “These (’Sweeney’ leads) are all people who are dear friends, and I’m offsetting them with regional and local talent.”

The Four Corners Musical Theatre Co. was founded by West almost four years ago when he took over supervisory and production duties at the Farmington Civic Center and Sandstone Productions at Lions Wilderness Park. With the recent opening of the Totah Theater under city auspices, he’ll be in charge of another venue.

Funding for theater company comes in part from The Mains Foundation, founded by Dr. Paul and Elsie Mains, to bring quality musical productions to the community.

“I’m surrounded by terrific people, and believe me, that’s the only way this thing works,” West said.