‘Sweeney Todd’: HPAF brings razor-sharp dark comedy to Waimea and Hilo

  • Photo courtesy HPAF Jesse Malgieri as Sweeney Todd and Amy Maude Helfer as Mrs. Lovett rehearse a scene for the Hawaii Performing Arts Festival's production of the musical "Sweeney Todd," 7 p.m. tonight at the Kahilu Theatre in Waimea and 7 p.m. Sunday at the Palace Theater in downtown Hilo.
  • Photo courtesy HPAF Sara Law as Johanna and Jesse Malgieri as Sweeney Todd rehearse a scene for the Hawaii Performing Arts Festival's production of the musical "Sweeney Todd," 7 p.m. tonight at the Kahilu Theatre in Waimea and 7 p.m. Sunday at the Palace Theater in downtown Hilo.

The Hawaii Performing Arts Festival’s artistic team behind last year’s production of “The Mikado” returns to serve up some of the tastiest meat pies in town — with “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”

Performances are at 7 p.m. tonight at Kahilu Theatre in Waimea and 7 p.m. Saturday at the Palace Theater in downtown Hilo.


“Sweeney Todd” is a dark tale of a Victorian-era barber who returns to London and assumes a new identity after spending 15 years in exile because of a corrupt judge with a personal agenda. The book is by Hugh Wheeler, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

The musical, complete with pit orchestra, is directed by Justin John Moniz, HPAF’s executive director and coordinator of vocal studies at Millikin University in Decatur, Ill. An HPAF alum, the 29-year-old tenor has twice won The American Prize in Vocal Performance. Moniz said the decision to produce “Sweeney Todd” was one HPAF made with local audiences in mind.

“We produced Sondheim’s ‘Into the Woods’ a couple of years ago and it was well received, so we decided to go back again into Sondheim,” Moniz explained. “Last year, we produced ‘The Mikado.’ … Usually, we try to do something that is light opera, operetta or musical theater. We had such a good response with ‘Into the Woods’ that we … decided to do ‘Sweeney Todd’ this year. A little bit darker than ‘The Mikado,’ but, I think, equally as thrilling.”

In the title role is Jesse Malgieri, one of HPAF’s professional fellows this year, whose awards include one from the Metropolitan Opera National Council and who has sung internationally with the Munich Philharmonic, the Bunka Kaikan Theater in Tokyo, the Kyrenia Opera at the Pallas Theater in Cyprus and the Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia in Spain.

“Jesse is an outstanding young baritone in high demand,” Moniz said. “Audiences may remember Jesse from last season because he portrayed Pooh-Bah in ‘The Mikado.’ He’s a very dramatic actor with also a comedic side. People will remember that from last year. This is a bit of a different role for him. But what we’re trying to do with the piece, as dark as it is, is I’m really venturing to find those lighter moments and play that as much as possible.

“I think often, in ‘Sweeney Todd’ in particular, you know, Sweeney is portrayed as this dark, dark, evil man. And while I think that’s probably the case, you don’t ever get a feel for what Sweeney’s going through. We’re also kind of playing into the fact that Sweeney has a sensitive and a comical side, as well. We’re exploring that, and Jesse’s doing a fabulous job. He’s an incredible singing actor and this is a really great fit for him, although a little bit different from Pooh-Bah, I supposed.”

The role of Mrs. Lovett, who bakes and sells the meat pies of barbarous origin, is double-cast. Amy Maude Helfer will appear in the Kahilu production, while Rhealee (pronounced Ray-lee) Fernandez will take the stage at the Palace.

“The two performances will be different, and that’s one of the great things for us when we double-cast roles to provide opportunity,” Moniz said. “It’s an interesting dynamic as you shift out certain players within the cast. You discover different dynamics that lead to a different show, in ways.”

Helfer, a mezzo-soprano from Cheshire, Conn., who lives in New York, is a professional fellow at HPAF.

“She’s had an extensive career singing opera, operetta and musical theater, so we’re thrilled to have her this season,” Moniz said. “She’s been a regular player with the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players for many years. She’s kind of a G&S expert, if you will, and she’s also really funny. I think, equally important in this role is the comedy, because it provides contrast to the darkness of the piece.”

As a senior at Waubonsie Valley High School in Aurora, Ill., Fernandez, now Millikin sophomore and student of Moniz’s, played Mrs. Lovett in the 2017 Illinois High School Theatre Festival All-State production of “Sweeney Todd” at the University of Illinois.

“She is an incredible young talent who is destined for really wonderful things,” Moniz said. “She is really comical and is a voice to be reckoned with. It’s truly a phenomenal instrument and she’s just a great actress, as well.”

“Sweeney Todd” was made into a 2007 Tim Burton film starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter.

According to Moniz, HPAF’s stage production will provide a different, lighter experience.

“I think the movie is much darker than what we’re intending to do with the piece on the stage,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, ‘Sweeney Todd’ lends itself to a little bit of a bloody mess, if you will, but we’re not playing it as dark. There are so many clever nuances within Sondheim’s text and within the libretto. There’s a lot of comedy to be had within it. That’s what creates the contrast — and, for me, art without contrast is incredibly boring. So what we’re trying to do is playing the light within the dark. I think that’s what makes the piece the most effective.”

In another twist — the HPAF production will be set in the 1980s instead of the London of 1846.

Tickets for tonight’s performance are $25, $35 and $45 and are available from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. at the Kahilu box office, online at kahilutheatre.org and at the door.


Ticket’s for Sunday night’s show are $25 and are available from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. weekdays at the Palace box office, by calling 934-7010 or online at hawaiiperformingartsfestival.org/events/.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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