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Little Company, Huge Show

Kevin Johnson's Arizona Onstage Productions brings 'Sweeney Todd' to life

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Kevin Johnson, founder and artistic director of Arizona Onstage Productions, sailed into the café where we were to meet for coffee and chat about Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. He is directing the Stephen Sondheim musical, which opens Friday.

He greeted me warmly and said, "I'm going to get some coffee."

I thought: Dang, are you sure? You already seem pretty amped.

I've spoken with Kevin many times, and he is decidedly a high-energy dude. And the source of his energy is not coffee, although it might augment his intensity just a wee bit.

When he returned to the table, he anticipated the question I was ready to ask.

"I know, how can anyone in their right mind take on such a huge project?" he said.

Well, he confessed, he may not really be in his right mind.

There are 52 people in the cast, 10 union musicians and seven tech folks. He's renting the main stage at the Temple of Music and Art. He finances his shows—this one will cost in the neighborhood of $52,000—from his own teacher's salary and modest amounts from six donors.

He pays everyone. That's rare in this town.

"I use people who could be making their living in the theater, but for various reasons, have chosen not to," he said. "I have gathered into the ensembIe experienced people who I expect to be on time, learn their music, behave professionally and perform at a professional level. How do I dare not pay them?"

Anyone who knows about Arizona Onstage knows that Johnson leans toward staging plays with dark—or, perhaps more accurately, thoughtful—content.

"I have nothing against Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music," he explained. "But there are plenty of opportunities for folks to see those. There are not many opportunities to see the kinds of shows I do. And they should be seen."

Sweeney Todd made a scene on Broadway in 1979. It won eight out of the nine Tony awards it was nominated for, and earned dozens of other honors. In 2007, Tim Burton directed a movie version starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Alan Rickman, introducing the story to many folks who weren't familiar with it.

Benjamin Barker has been wrongly imprisoned in Australia for years, sentenced by an evil judge who desired Barker's wife for himself, and who appropriated the Barkers' daughter as his ward, locking her in his home her entire life. When Barker returns to London, he creates a new persona, Sweeney Todd, whose goal is revenge—pure and simple. His old barber's shop is a flat over a bake shop, and he and the baker, Mrs. Lovett, go into business together: He kills his customers, sending their bodies down to Mrs. Lovett, who develops very tasty meat pies with the flesh of these unfortunate seekers of a shave. The public can't get enough of those pies, and Todd and Lovett are happy to keep them coming. Of course, circumstances unravel, and justice is broad and bloody.

The show is a melodrama, which, Johnson said, in its original usage meant a stage show accompanied by music. More specifically, the story of Sweeney Todd is based on a "penny dreadful," which in Victorian England was a page-long lurid story included with newspapers to help to boost sales. Not everybody could read in those days, so these penny dreadfuls would be read aloud, and the story would circulate, changing just a bit every time it was told.

Johnson is using this approach in telling his version. "We are storytellers, and our version has changed just a bit. In the opening scene, everyone is onstage, as though it were the end of the show—even Todd, who's dead. The action of the play is: We are going to show you how this came to be. As they look at each other in that opening scene, they know they are facing their fate."

He paused. "It's really not a fancy show. It's a smart show. And I trust the audience to fill in many blanks. That's not to say there won't be a set or costumes. There was one revival in New York of Sweeney Todd where there were only nine actors, and they themselves played their musical accompaniment. Patti Lupone played a tuba. And the producers said, 'Oh, it's so innovative.' I thought, 'No, you're just really cheap bastards.'"

Portraying Todd is Kit Runge, who is an engineer at Raytheon. Although he had been enticed by theater in high school, in college, he pursued engineering, getting a doctorate from Stanford. He and his family moved here in 2004, and he has done several shows in town, including several with Johnson at Arizona Onstage. One of the things he likes about Johnson is that he is willing to take risks, choosing shows not in the mainstream and with a certain level of difficulty.

Interestingly, he was cast as Todd in a production in New Jersey—just before he and his family transferred here, so he never got to play the role.

The biggest discovery for Runge has been how impressed he is with Sondheim. "This is very legitimate music, and I have liked it more than I imagined I would," he said.

About this production, Runge said he is so impressed that "the quality of the cast is insanely high—higher than I've ever experienced before. Then again, this kind of show can draw that kind of talent."

What does Johnson want the audience to take away from their experience of this violent yet tuneful story? "You mean besides that there's a really ballsy small professional theater in town? I want them to ask themselves, after seeing how this all came to be, how far away are you—really—from this person? What would you do—or want to do—in this situation?"

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