Dark Tale of 'Sweeney Todd' Finds Second Life at The Encore

Director and Actor Dig Below Surface of Sondheim Classic and Discover Emotional Gems

BY DONALD V. CALAMIA

For an actor whose recent credits include such seemingly diverse characters as John Wilkes Booth in "Assassins," Ash in "Evil Dead: The Musical," Ted Bundy in "Date 16" and now the demon barber in the Stephen Sondheim musical "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" that's now running through Oct. 22 at The Encore Musical Theatre in Dexter, one might wonder what's lurking behind David Moan's fascination with guns, blood and fatally sharp instruments. "I've been trying to rationalize this in my brain," Moan laughed a few days before the show's opening night performance. "I would never have pegged myself as (an) intense, sort of dark character."

Neither would anyone who's ever met the warm, personable and innocent-looking actor. But it's the work of Academy Award-winning actor Christoph Waltz and how he approaches darker or more tortured characters that he looks to for guidance. "It's always with this air of charisma and always with this lightness that makes the dark that much scarier," Moan explained. "I hope that's what I bring to these characters. When I put a knife in my hand, a razor in this case or when I hold a gun, people automatically go, 'Wait. He shouldn't have a gun!' That makes it all the more terrifying. So, I think it's that juxtaposition of my relatively cheery disposition in real life with this quiet intensity, which I hope resonates with people."

After a short pause, and with a twinkle in his eye, he breaks into a sly grin. "It does make me worry a little bit, that everybody is like, 'If somebody's going to murder somebody else, it's probably David.' It's a trend."

Yes, but a profitable and career-enhancing trend for Moan, who is a past recipient of two Wilde Award nominations (for "Evil Dead: The Musical" and "RoboCop! The Musical"), and a 2017 winner for his memorable performance in "Assassins."

"But this is probably the hardest role I've had to do."

That's likely an understatement, as Sondheim is known to craft some of the toughest and most complicated scores for musical theater artists to sing. That's especially true of "Sweeney Todd," which is more operatic than most musicals.

In this case, however, director Matthew Brennan is taking a somewhat different approach to his production. "I don't think it's anything too wild, honestly," he said. "We are very focused on the story."

Rather than its traditional setting on the streets of London in the 19th century, Brennan's tale of a vengeful barber and the demented baker who loves him unfolds in a factory sometime in the 1940s. Not everyone on stage will be one of its employees, however. "The audience will be ever present," the director explained, noting that some patrons will be seated on two sides of the stage as well as in the traditional spot out front. "No matter where you sit, you will be looking across the stage at some form of audience member. The ensemble ends up in chairs. The whole set is one rolling table and 20 chairs. Then it's just a giant game of make believe with moving chairs and trying to come at some things from a different angle."

What drives the production forward, however, is its rich story content, which is ripe for mining. "We kind of tried to - I think, I hope - look at the story, look at the plot points and clues about the characters, or why they do what they do, and that just kind of set-up this whole chain reaction of moving chairs, and having an ever-present 'Greek chorus' kind of feel to the ensemble. But man, moving those chairs has been complicated," Brennan said with chuckle.

Moan agreed, adding, "It's more like a ballet than I would have ever have anticipated for a show like this."

It's Brennan's concept for the show that sold producing artistic director Dan Cooney on making "Sweeney Todd" The Encore Musical Theatre's first-ever major revival. Cooney's decision was likely a tough one, as the company's 2009 production - which he directed - was a memorable one that earned two Wilde Award nominations, one of which was for Best Musical. (Sarah Litzsinger won for Best Actress - Musical for her portrayal of Mrs. Lovett.) And the big-budget show can be a tough sell to potential customers who fear it might be too bloody. But Cooney recognizes a good idea when he hears one. "For Matt, there (are) a handful of shows he has been obsessing over since he was a child," he said. "They've all gone through an intense development process in his bedroom many years ago - and continue to haunt him in his sleep. Given Matt's enthusiasm and insane concept for 'Sweeney,' we decided it was an exciting choice for our first revival, and a perfect fit for our tenth season."

Although Brennan's work at The Encore has been behind the scenes of late as a choreographer and director, the Chicago-born, but Louisville, KY-based artist first arrived in Dexter almost as a fluke. Or maybe divine intervention. "I had not moved to Louisville yet, but I was there working a lot. There was a woman named Barbara Cullen who used to direct and choreograph here. She and Dan know each other because Dan used to work at the theater I work at in Louisville all the time, which is how Barb kind of ended up coming here. In 2010, Barb called me kind of in a panic and said, 'I'm doing 'Damn Yankees.' I need dancing guys. I'm sure there's no chance that you have the next five weeks free?'"

He checked. He did - but barely. "So, I said, 'Sure, yeah. Sure. Why not?"

He got more than he bargained for. "So I came in 2010 kind of thinking, 'I'll hop in here. I'll put on a baseball uniform and dance around for Barb. It'll be great. And I'll go back to New York and continue doing whatever.' (I) just kind of never thought I would ever venture back."

But it's a journey he's since taken numerous times. "And it all started with Barb needing a dancing gentleman."

With "Sweeney," Brennan needs more than just a gentleman who dances. In fact, there are nearly two dozen characters he needs to bring to life, some of whom are the opposite of gentlemanly - and all of whom need to be excellent singers. Both he and Moan make it clear they couldn't be happier with multiple Wilde Award-winning musical director Tyler Driskill and the ensemble that's been assembled for this production.

"It's just been the best environment," Moan said. "I've felt so much support from my cast mates who are doing incredible things. The actor playing Tobias, Billy Eric Robinson, he comes in and he has such craft for that role and just inspires me every day."

Moan gives especially high praise to his co-star and leading lady (if you can a woman who gleefully turns murder victims into meat pies a "lady"). "Sarah Briggs is just killing it as Mrs. Lovett. It's been wonderful," Moan said.

Brennan agrees. "She's very funny, but she's very sexy. Even the gay guys in the cast are like, 'I'm thinking about switching over because of Sarah Briggs!" he laughed. "(Her number) 'By the Sea' is funny and it is heartbreaking."

It's also unlike any "Sweeney Todd" you've likely seen before - and according to Moan, that's one its selling points. "(For) those people who don't know 'Sweeney Todd,' this is a great place to start. And people who've come to The Encore for years, I think, are going to be very surprised at what The Encore can be. Those people who have never been to The Encore before are going to want to come back because of this show."

With the opening night performance now in the record books, truer words have likely never been spoken.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

The Encore Musical Theatre Company

3126 Broad Street, Dexter

734-268-6200

www.theencoretheatre.org

Tickets: $27-35

7:30 p.m. Thursday: Oct. 5, 12, 19

7:30 p.m. Friday: Oct. 6, 13, 20

2 p.m. Saturday: Oct. 7, 14, 21

7:30 p.m. Saturday: Oct. 7, 14, 21

2 p.m. Sunday: Oct. 8, 15, 22

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