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PREVIEW: Virginia Opera's "Sweeney Todd"

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Ron Daniels has a unique connection with the musical “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”: It probably wouldn’t exist without him.

More than 40 years ago, it was Daniels who found the old penny dreadful tale and decided to turn it into a modern play, written by colleague Christopher Bond.

“Chris actually wrote the thing under my guidance and collaboration,” says Daniels, who served as director and dramaturge for the 1973 play. “I certainly didn’t write it, but it was my baby.”

It was this version that inspired composer Stephen Sondheim to pen the musical adaptation six years later. Now Daniels is helming “Sweeney Todd” again, this time for the Virginia Opera. The show is a remounting of the version Daniels directed two years ago in St. Louis.

For the uninitiated, “Sweeney Todd” is the story of a barber who seeks revenge after 15 years of false imprisonment. Convicted by a judge who lusted after his wife, Todd has picked up his old razors to slash the throats of his antagonists and others. The bodies are cooked into meat pies and sold in the bakery under his barber shop.

“Sondheim has taken the story to a whole new level, developed the irony and humor,” Daniels says. “The music is absolutely extraordinary and bright and funny and immensely powerful.”

As Mrs. Lovett, the bakery owner, mezzo-soprano Phyllis Pancella says the show is one of her favorites, and this will be her third time appearing in the musical.

“It’s a horror-musical slash cautionary tale slash Victorian melodrama,” explains Pancella. “There’s a direct line drawn between the events of the story and the humanity of it in general. We’re all capable of such things if we’re pushed far enough.”

Playing Todd in this production is baritone Stephen Powell, who Virginia Opera patrons will recognize as the titular character in last season’s “Falstaff.”

“The trick is to elicit sympathy for his character,” Powell says. “I think everyone can imagine and feel what he’s going through from the start, but when he starts going a bit towards the dark side, starts killing innocent people, it’s hard to follow him into that world.”

Bringing Daniels and Sweeney Todd back together after all these years isn’t the only reunion in this production: Powell and Pancella have been friends since their early days as theater artists in Chicago, and they’ve played opposite each other on stage before.

“We’ve been looking for years to be able to do this together,” says Pancella of the musical. “We’ve been friends onstage once, married onstage once, and now this very strange relationship.”

As kooky as the story gets, at its heart, Pancella says it all comes back to the music.

“It’s odd that there are songs about cannibalism that can be catchy,” Pancella says. “There’s a beauty in it too. It’s not just cleverness. There’s a lot of sweetness, there’s a lot of menace.”

Daniels agrees.

“Sondheim’s [work] has an edge to it that a lot of Broadway musicals that are pure entertainment don’t have,” he says. “Sondheim is different.”

Virginia Opera’s “Sweeney Todd” play Oct. 3 and 5 at Richmond Centerstage. 600 E. Grace St. For more information call 1-866-OPERA-VA or visit vaopera.org.

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