PROVIDENCE — Curt Columbus, artistic director at Trinity Repertory Company, has been negotiating with Sweeney Todd for the past five years.
That’s a long time to spend with a character known as a “demon,” but the outcome of that process goes onstage May 25 when Trinity opens the Stephen Sondheim musical “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”
Columbus is finally getting to direct the show, which was chosen in 2018, announced for the 2019-20 season, and then derailed by COVID. Now it’s here as the closing production of the 2022-23 season.
Set in 19th century London, the play, with a book by Hugh Wheeler, tells the saga of Benjamin Barker, a former barber who 15 years ago was framed by a corrupt judge and sent to an Australian penal colony. But now he has returned under the alias Sweeney Todd, with his barbering tools intact and a mind set on revenge.
The building where his barbershop used to be is now the site of a bakery, and as Sweeney’s obsession takes its deadly toll on his clients, the baker, Mrs. Lovett, offers to help the barber by cooking the remains in her meat pies.
The source of the story is 19th century penny dreadfuls, melodramatic, serialized stories that sold for a penny per installment. Sweeney’s story was first told in the 1840s, but Wheeler’s book expanded on it by creating the back story about injustices done to Sweeney.
“At its core, it is a story about justice and a perversion of justice,” Columbus says. “We’re in a time where we talk and think about that a lot.”
Although the saga addresses issues on the nature of crime, punishment and justice, it’s told with dark humor.
“It’s terrifying and funny at same time,” Columbus says. “You need a sense of humor to stage this play and allow for laughter as part of the experience. The brilliance is Sondheim’s music, some of the most beautiful music written for the stage — ever. It’s nuanced, smart, lyrical writing. The music tells us how to play the scene.”
The late Eugene Lee, an award-winning designer for Broadway and resident designer at Trinity Rep, won the Tony Award for his set for the premier of the Sondheim-Wheeler production, directed by Hal Prince in 1979.
Columbus saw that production as a 15-year-old and calls it “a meditation on class in Victorian London. Eugene found an incredibly beautiful way to create different environments on stage,” he explains, describing the set as a cube that turns.
“It was like a giant, factory warehouse,” industrialization being the scourge on the working class of the era. At the time of his death in February, Lee had been working with his longtime collaborator, Patrick Lynch, on a new design for Trinity Rep, which Lynch has completed.
“Our cube is a little bit of a take on that (original design),” Columbus continues. “We’re trying to make something that speaks to our time (so instead of a factory) Patrick has brought in architectural elements of a prison.”
This cube also turns — “It operates by humans pushing it,” he says — to reveal different settings.
One thing this Columbus-directed production is not, however, is a “bit of a take” on Tim Burton’s bloody 2007 movie.
“The movie was just awful on every level,” he says, giving permission to quote him on that. “It has nothing to do with the work of Sondheim. The music sounds awful; nobody knew how to sing.” That’s unfortunate, because “there are less than five pages of dialogue in the whole, two-and-a-half-hour experience.”
Trinity’s “Sweeney” features accomplished vocalists, including company member Rachael Warren as Mrs. Lovett and guest artist Erick Pinnick as Sweeney Todd, who previously appeared in Trinity Rep productions of “Annie” and “Oliver!” Music director Andrew Smithson leads a band “with a lot of strings,” Columbus says.
Ultimately, “Sweeney Todd, he says, “is like great Shakespeare, with comedy and tragedy sitting side by side,” performed on an inventive set and accompanied by an acclaimed score.
“Sweeney Todd” is in the Dowling Theater at Trinity Rep, 201 Washington St., from May 25 through June 25. Tickets start at $27 and are available online at trinityrep.com/ sweeney or by contacting the ticket office at (401) 351-4242.
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