About 30 minutes into watching the Wednesday night dress rehearsal of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” at John Burroughs High School in Burbank, I had an unsettling realization.
An hour prior, I had been at the mercy of sharp steel, having received a haircut less than a mile away. I shivered and touched my neck, taken in by Stephen Sondheim‘s over-the-top creepy score, music the play's vocal director Brendan Jennings described — rather aptly, I thought — as “early Tim Burton.”
Fortunately, the woman who tames my somewhat unruly mop is not a maniacal, hate-filled murderer. Alma has always given me an excellent cut, without as much as a nick in all that time.
The title role of Sweeney Todd — played by John Oreshnick — however, has a predilection for luring customers for a most unkind cut, dumping their lifeless remains downstairs for his partner in crime, Mrs. Lovett — Bronwen Capshaw — to turn into meat pies.
It's been quite a long time since I've seen a high school play. In fact, I think the last time was when I worked as a general assignment reporter for a tiny paper in San Bernardino County. In 1998. Shame on me. I cannot remember a time when I saw so many people working together in such joyful collaboration.
And the earnestness! Good lord. If you want to have your faith in humanity restored, spend a couple of hours watching a high school play come together. Everyone really, really, really wants the show to go well. Really.
Guy Myers, the play's director and drama teacher, said it far better than me:
“They are going 100% all of the time,” he said. “There is so much passion on the stage and with the tech. That's the reward.”
The teachers and students I spoke to were not concerned by the show's difficulty, a challenging one for professionals.
“This is one of the best casts we've ever had,” Jennings said. “They were up for it.”
But it was hardly easy. Joe Leone, who plays the role of Anthony Hope, set out one of the common challenges in this way:
“In one part, I'm singing based on the same melody, but with different words and slight rhythmic differences,” he said.
Like many others in the show, the senior says he has been singing in the school's choir for years. He plays the piano, guitar, bass, drums and sax in addition to signing, a feat I remarked sounded like he was his own jazz band.
He laughed, noting that jazz was his first and primary musical love.
The set itself was jazz-like, with syncopated angles, all manner of staircases, revolving sets, trapdoors and the like. I asked Myers how they pulled that off, given the sad financial state of most public school arts programs.
Myers looked at me a moment, blinking.
“None of us get paid to do this,” he said. “The money for the sets and costumes come from ticket sales, fundraisers, and of course we shake down the parents whenever we can.”
He said the costs for this show were significant, as the set was rented from nearby Citrus College, as were the costumes. In addition, the music called for instrumentation not found at the school, and a number of professional musicians had to be hired.
Myers said each production is really a roll of the dice. A single flop could kill the program, or at least put it on a long hiatus.
But it doesn't have to be that way. Show your support. The play, which opened Friday, has another performance on Saturday at 7 p.m and a 2 p.m Sunday matinee. If what I saw was any indication of their live performances, this will not be a chore. I more than suspect you will very much enjoy yourselves.
On a separate note, I need to give an update about our community editorial boards. Due to the upcoming election, it makes sense to have these groups meet after all the hue and cry of the political season has subsided. That means the first groups will not be meeting until mid- to late April. I apologize for the delay.
--DAN EVANS is the editor. He can be reached at (818) 627-3234 or firstname.lastname@example.org.