Sweeney Todd devours Palace Theatre

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 Photo courtesy of DavidAllenStudio.com
 Lauren Molina and Benjamin Magnuson will appear in the touring production of Stephen Sondheim’s "Sweeney Todd," playing at the Palace Theatre Dec. 11-16. Molina re-created the role of Johanna in the 2005 revival in her Broadway debut and continues on the 20-city tour, using her musical skills as well as her acting and singing abilities.

The musical "Sweeney Todd" might ostensibly be about murder and cannibalism but, according to cast member Lauren Molina, there is more for audiences to chew on than these gory details.

"There are so many universal themes –  loss, vengeance, love, freedom, desire, pain, passion," offered Molina, who played the role of Johanna in the 2005 Broadway revival of the Stephen Sondheim masterpiece, and will essay the part when the show arrives at the Palace Theatre Dec. 11-16.

"It’s timeless. It’s like Shakespeare," the actress added.

The show tells the story of "The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," a legendary 19th century London criminal who killed his victims while they sat in his chair, and then disposed of the bodies in meat pies baked by his accomplice, Nellie Lovett.

Formerly known as Benjamin Barker, Sweeney returns from exile to Australia, sentenced by a judge who lusted after his wife.

He learns from Mrs. Lovett that his wife poisoned herself and his daughter, Johanna, is now the judge’s ward, whom he intends to marry.

Johanna is also the love interest of a young sailor, Anthony Hope. While the young lovers plot their escape, Sweeney dreams of revenge, first on Judge Turpin and then on the cruel society around him.

Molina seems to have been cut out to play the role of Johanna in the production as conceived by director John Doyle.

Only two years out of college and living in New York City, she learned of the "Sweeney Todd" casting call for a soprano who could play the cello and piano, two of her fortes. As a bonus, Molina has the flowing blond tresses associated with the character.

"If I couldn’t get this part, I thought I should probably just give up," Molina said.

She grew up immersed in music at home in Michigan, where her father was principal bassist for the Detroit Symphony and her mother was a dancer. She began piano lessons at 5 and took up the cello and other instruments later.

At the University of Michigan she changed her major twice, from a concentration on vocal and operatic studies to musical theatre, and headed for New York after graduation.

She "paid her dues" with her first show, a touring production of "Just So Stories" in which she played a leopard, and also drove the van, set up scenery, and often played to children at 10 in the morning.

"It wasn’t very glamorous," she admitted.

Back in the Big Apple, she bit on the casting call for "Sweeney" while working a temp job for a diamond seller.

For her audition, Doyle "had me crawl under a table, as if Johanna had an eating disorder, as if she had been abused and molested," Molina recalled.

Her fifth and final audition was performed in front of Sondheim himself.

At the end, he commented "Well, that was just charming," Molina said. "I just got all giddy."

The newcomer found the 77-year-old theatre legend, whose numerous credits include "West Side Story," "Gypsy," and "Sunday in the Park With George," to be "kind and humble and modest..He was full of questions. He is still wise, but still a sponge."

The revival and the touring production are closer to Sondheim’s original conception of a chamber piece than Hal Prince’s epic treatment.

"It’s pared down and intimate. There’s only one set" and, instead of an orchestra,  the cast members

play instruments that become extensions of their characters, Molina explained. "John Doyle proved with this production that the story is what is important, that you don’t need a giant, spinning set to establish the characters or where they are. It forced the audience to use their imaginations, which is something they are not asked to do much anymore."

Because the performers are on the stage through the entire show, "you get to see Johanna’s growth, and her deterioration. She’s not just a two-dimensional character who sings and leaves."

The shuttered girl’s signature song is "Green Finch and Linnet Bird," in which she identifies with the caged creatures sold on the streets, and questions how they can still sing.

Have you decided it’s

Safer in cages

Singing when you’re told?

But behind her naivete lies a bit of cunning as she sees Anthony as her chance to escape, and Molina is not so sure Johanna is as innocent as she seems. "She has the blood of Sweeney Todd in her. She could be a killer."

The cast also serves as the chorus, "which is like having a voice lesson every night," observed Molina, who has to hit several high-C sharps.

On Broadway, Molina worked with Patti Lupone, who played Mrs. Lovett, and on the tour the role is being played by Judy Kaye, a Tony winner for "Phantom of the Opera."

In a bit of a plot twist, David Hess, who plays Sweeney, has had to rest with a vocal ailment. His replacement, Alex Gemignani, played the Beadle on Broadway and was Molina’s coach as a musical theatre student.

While on the 20-stop tour, Molina enjoys exploring new cities, and also uses the time to write songs. She has released her debut CD "Do-bi-Do," which is getting good airplay.

She realizes that being cast in "Sweeney Todd" was a real stroke of luck, and she has many friends from college who have not yet arrived on Broadway.

It was also, obviously, a product of being well-schooled and well-prepared.

"It’s important to get a good education," Molina advised aspiring thespians. "And it’s important to have a diversity of interests and have a breadth of knowledge, not just musicals, but straight plays, and literature, science. It will enrich your performances."

Broadway Across America-Columbus will present "Sweeney Todd" at the Palace Theatre, 34 W. Broad St., Dec. 11-16, Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at the Ohio Theatre box office, Ticketmaster outlets or by calling 431-3600.

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