The 'Demon Barber Of Fleet Street' Comes To Bellows Falls

Mar 17, 2017

Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street", is a major undertaking: dozens of cast members in Victorian costumes, a three-story set where dead bodies slide from floor-to-floor and a story that challenges the audience to find the humor in murder and revenge.

But director David Stern, who's behind a new production at the Bellows Falls Opera House, says from the start he wasn't going to let a shoestring budget and low expectations get in the way of his vision.

"I do have this thing, when people say community theater, I bridle a little bit, because it usually means bad theater," Stern says. "My aspiration, and I think the aspiration of this specific community is to do great theater. And, you know, we're going to darn come as close as we can.

To get close to greatness Stern corralled about 60 people to build the set, design the costumes, work the sound and lights and put in countless hours rehearsing.

Some of the people, Stern says, are being paid, but these aren't union wages we're talking about.

"When I think of what we've done with what monetary resources, I'm amazed," he says.

David Stern has been working on the play for almost a year. Most of the cast and construction crew have volunteered their time.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

Sweeney Todd tells the tale of a barber who was unjustly convicted of a crime and exacts his revenge by luring those who wronged him into his barber's chair, where he slits their throats with his razor.

The play is being produced by Main Street Arts, a nonprofit in Saxtons River that has its own small theater.

They moved the production from the theater over to the larger Bellows Falls Opera House. Stern says, in a way, it's inspired him and the crew to push themselves even further.
 

One of Sweeney Todd's victims lay at the bottom of the chute on the stage at the Bellows Falls Opera House.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

He says taking on a project like this has inspired this group to explore just how far they can go.

"It's one thing for me to be fanatical with my own workload," Stern says. "It's another thing to find people who become equally fanatical about building this physical object. They're committed to just coming day after day, and about building the music and building the make-up and the costumes, and we have this kind of team, this kind of committed, wedded, volunteer driven group. That is the only thing that makes it work."

A number of Windham County art groups have come on board to help out, including New England Youth Theater, New England Center for Circus Arts and Sandglass Theater.

"The thing I find most exciting about this show is its community spirit," says Shoshona Bass, a member of Sandglass Theater, a puppet and performing arts group from Putney.

 

Michael Wright plays the demonic Sweeney Todd and Libby McCawley is Mrs. Lovett.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

"There are people who are professional actors and people who are standing on stage for the first time," Bass says. "There's someone [who is] 13 years old, there's older actors. There's such a huge range of people who are coming together with the spirit of putting on a show, and it's amazing to see that much good will and excitement and energy to just do something together."

During the early production meetings Bass says some of the director's ideas seemed ambitious for a group of mostly volunteer actors and stage techs.

But each one of them she says, rose to the occasion.

Sweeney Todd is being produced by Main Street Arts, which has a small theater in Saxtons River, and the play is being performed at the Bellows Falls Opera House.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

"It's been amazing to watch," she says. "And I'm seeing it coming together. I think things always adjust and transform as the reality of it comes into focus, and those are the beautiful moments."

"Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street" is at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 17 and Saturday, March 18, as well as Thursday through Saturday, March 23 through 25. You can find more information and reserve tickets here.