‘Sweeney Todd’: A healthy dose of ‘wicked fun’ coming to the Clarence Brown stage
By Timothy Hankins (email@example.com)
The Clarence Brown Theatre on the University of Tennessee campus is kicking off its 2012—2013 season with “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”
Steven Sondheim’s classic “operatic melodrama” is the dark and twisted tale of a man obsessed with vengeance. The story has elements of mystery and thriller laced with dark comedy. At its heart, it is a poignant statement on the dangers of obsession.
“The show is a triumph of musical inventiveness and expressiveness,” said director Calvin MacLean in a Clarence Brown Theater press release. “Thrillers are fun, but they also have a message, and if you are a fan of its plot conventions, like I am, ‘Sweeney’ delivers wicked fun along with its dark warnings.”
MacLean is joined by music director Lucas Richman — conducting musicians from the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra — in the main stage production.
The show stars Knoxville native Dale Dickey as Mrs. Lovett. Dickey was a University of Tennessee theater student in the early 1980s and is currently a regular in the HBO series “True Blood.” She has also appeared in network TV shows and won best supporting actress at the Independent Spirit Awards for her performance in 2010’s “Winter’s Bone.” She is slated to appear next in “Iron Man 3,” scheduled for release next summer.
In a recent interview with The Daily Times, Dickey said returning to the stage is a good way for her to keep her acting chops in top condition. Dickey said the difference between stage and screen acting makes each experience unique.
“In a nutshell, I started on the stage and I continue to do a lot of theater in L.A. and ... back here [at Clarence Brown Theatre] when I can,” she said. “I love live theater, there’s just nothing like it — that constant interaction, and you don’t have a chance to do it over again. It’s just a different discipline and I like to keep up that muscle.”
Dickey and her co-star Jeff Austin (“L.A. Confidential,” “Armageddon,” “How I Met Your Mother,” “Bones,” “NYPD Blue”) talked about the challenges and rewards of live theater — especially working on a show as complex and intense as “Sweeney Todd.”
“You have to have a little bit of freedom, because theater is live as it happens,” Austin said. “The audience is seeing it live as it happens, there’s no retakes and you’re concentrating in the moment. So there’s never going to be an exact same rhythm. Pretty close but it’s always going to be a little bit of a centimeter off here and there.”
For both actors, the performance starts with understanding their character and the deep motivations at play in the story. In “Sweeney Todd” there’s an additional element that is paramount as well: the music.
“... I think because of the fact that the symphony is on stage, we’re trying to simplify some of the staging, but you also have to make sure that all of the scenes’ music are as deep and well investigated as discovered as possible,” Dickey said.
“You just really have to read and sing the music and it teaches you and transforms you,” Austin added.
Working together, the duo has developed a friendship and mutual respect that they believe will be apparent in their performances.
“When you like your leading lady or conversely she likes her leading man offstage as a person, as an artist and you respect their work, absolutely it translates on the stage and the chemistry is — that is the chemistry,” Austin said.
One of Dickey’s biggest concerns in taking on the role of Lovett was working in musical theater after a lengthy hiatus.
“The fact that we’re doing it with the symphony orchestra — and Jeff’s done a lot more musical theater than I have, I did a lot years ago, but I’m sort of having to relearn to sing — it’s scary though right now. I’m having a great time working with [Austin]. We’re working well together.”
Austin said he was impressed by Dickey’s musical ability from the first rehearsal.
“I am so thrilled to work with Dale. I think with Lovett you have to be a great actor first. ... When I first started working with Dale I was blown away by how well she could sing. She sounded like Lovett to me.”
In rehearsals, both actors have discovered that the energy of Sondheim’s work carries them forward through the show. The momentum is almost overpowering.
“Just last week we ran the whole first act all together, because Cal had roughly staged it, we’d already spent weeks on the music and then went back and sort of fine tuned it and then we ran it,” Dickey said. “And it’s like a steam engine. And then that fire that we’ve had it’s like ‘Oh my gosh!’ Because by the end of the first act it’s like you’re ready for the second act sitting on fire.”