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Brown Opera Productions presents ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’

Show highlights anti-capitalist themes through plot, set design

“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” produced by Brown Opera Productions, opened in Alumnae Hall Friday night.

Based on the 1979 operetta by Stephen Sondheim, “Sweeney Todd” tells the story of the titular barber who kills his clients and sends them to be baked into meat pies by his partner, Mrs. Lovett. The BOP production of “Sweeney Todd” was co-directed by Amelia Wyckoff ’22 and Will Benjamin ’23.5 with musical direction by Wyckoff and Xinru Li ’22. 

The group’s interpretation of “Sweeney Todd” was different from that of other productions, according to Wyckoff.

“Most (productions) would say that this is a story about how revenge drives a man to evil. … They would characterize (the story) as one of revenge,” Wyckoff said. “I would say our (production) is about someone who has been wronged by so many people and so many systems, and has … experienced immense cruelty.” 

The directors’ note in the playbill stated that Wyckoff and Benjamin “wanted to take this text, which (they) have decided to reframe as anti-capitalist, and allow it to engage with the version of capitalism we are currently living under.” 

Wyckoff explained that the interactions between the characters helped to highlight the production’s anti-capitalist interpretation. “The way that Sweeney is reborn at the end of the play is an opportunity to talk about the cyclical nature of the system of capitalism and how it creates violence,” they said. 

“Victorian England is very well known for the industrial revolution, but also for its class inequality,” Benjamin said. He added that the show’s set design includes elements from the era while maintaining a “scrappier quality” that reinforces the production’s anti-capitalist themes.

Li, who also conducted the orchestra, noted the importance of keeping the show and music accessible for all audiences and performers. 

Opera “is something that, historically, has been very inaccessible for various reasons,” Li said, adding that many operas are in Italian. “Opera is not something that is very accessible … for non-trained opera singers, so a big challenge was (that) this may be the first time (some cast members have) ever done this job.” 

Li explained that communicating the timing of a show and cueing performers for their parts — as some members do not read sheet music — was part of making the performance more accessible. 

She wrote in an email to The Herald that the show was especially challenging for the musicians in the orchestra, who had to “readjust and change the way they play music at a moment’s notice to accommodate changes in acting. This means oftentimes musicians are literally playing things not written in their music in order for the show to sound good.”

The cast faced COVID-19-related hurdles leading up to the opening night. Two cast members tested positive for the virus on Friday afternoon, three hours before opening night. The roles were filled by two other BOP members shortly following the news, according to Wyckoff and Benjamin.

“We immediately went to (Smith-Buonanno Hall), we all skipped class and we spent two hours working through the changes and the ensemble,” Wyckoff said, adding that the cast “all tested before we entered the building.” 

The production earned praise from audience members for staging, performance and music.

“I thought that the movement fit the show perfectly and I think all of the actors had a great sense of their character,” said Josie Diaz ’25, who attended the opening night performance. “I think that they are all doing great, especially considering the COVID issues that have come up tonight. I think that the show is going seamlessly.”

“What really stuck out to me from this production was the lighting,” added Catie Manning ’25. “I feel like it really enhances whatever was going on and the orchestra … is absolutely amazing.”

“Sweeney Todd” will close with its fourth performance in Alumnae Hall Monday at 8 p.m.

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