“THERE’S a hole in the world like a great black pit,” the central character sings again and again in Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street”, but it’s a darkness that attracts and repels at the same time.
This is the Stephen Sondheim musical that critics have most likened to an opera and to perform its magnificent music is the dream of a lifetime for David Pearson, one of the finest voices in Canberra’s musical theatre scene.
Pearson, a former student of School of Music opera guru Anthea Moller, is a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music in London, but he’s done little acting in recent years, apart from a bit of work at The Street Theatre and a role in a short film.
“Having kids is a big part of it,” Pearson tells “CityNews” as he prepares for his role.
“My wife Alyssa and I have three little darlings to keep us busy.”
By day he works for University of Canberra in its recruitment and markings marketing section but now, by night, under the watch of director Richard Block and musical director Leonard Weiss, he’s returning to what he loves, performing on stage.
And what a role to come back to.
Sweeney Todd, an honest London barber is wrongly accused of a crime and transported to Australia by a corrupt judge. After 15 years he returns only to be told that his wife has poisoned herself and his child is the ward of the same judge. It’s a recipe for madness and he embarks on a murderous quest to dispose of the judge and all those who symbolise the heart of darkness that is London.
Pearson is no stranger to “Sweeney Todd”, having performed in the chorus for the Royal Academy’s production.
“Vocally, this is the biggest thing I’ve ever had to do,” he says.
“There are many vocal leaps and key changes and time changes and it most definitely should be referred to as an opera.”
Luckily he faces the challenges in good company, with final-year, Gungahlin College student Meaghan Stewart as the pragmatic pie-maker Mrs Lovett. She may be ahead of her time, but Pearson is just coming into the right age to play Sweeney Todd and judges his voice has matured to the point where it is exactly right for the role.
“When I was younger I was a lighter baritone, but age and gravity take effect so I’m getting a more rounded bass voice and I like to sink my teeth into those lower harmonics,” he says.
The teeth-sinking metaphor has us agreeing not to use any more eating analogies for the most terrifying part of the show is that the central character disposes of his victims in Mrs Lovett’s pies.
It may be Sondheim’s comment on economic rationalism, but it’s still pretty revolting.
“The back story is quite tragic, the man returns to London… he hears that his wife has taken poison and that his daughter was become the ward of the very man who imprisoned him, I can see why he goes into this terrible rage against the system and the judge who is at its foundation,” says Pearson.
He’s been trying to get inside the skin of Sweeney Todd, but nonetheless sees him as “a bit of a sociopath who needs to exert control”.
But he’s vulnerable. He falls for Mrs Lovett’s lies about his wife, who in reality is still alive, though a derelict. And he succumbs quickly to inventive suggestions about a new ingredient for her pies.
“Mrs Lovett is a kind of sociopath, too, very cunning,” Pearson says.
And as Sondheim takes his characters apart limb by limb, it is clear that she is sexually motivated, too.
But not even Pearson can stomach the idea of Sweeney Todd as a tormented hero.
“From where I’m sitting, inside his skin, I can justify his actions based on the foundation of loss, grief and fear, but there are so many innocent people who are killed, so he may not be considered a dark hero – he is too black… it’s the dark underbelly of the beast that Sondheim is exploring.”
“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”, Gungahlin College Theatre, October 6-21. Bookings to stagecenta.com or 6253 1454, 10am-4 pm weekdays.