BY CARY GINELL
Beginning Thursday and continuing for four performances this weekend, Ventura College will be presenting Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, starring a familiar name and face to Ventura County theater fans: our own master of musical mayhem, Andrew Metzger. Andrew is the only actor I know who has redefined “over-the-top.” An often excruciatingly funny comedian and a great singer, Sweeney tests the limits of Andrew’s acting and singing chops. It will be interesting, to say the least, to see if he can “cut it.”
VCOS: So you’re finally getting to play Sweeney. Is this a dream role for you?
ANDREW: You know, it’s always been in my Top 5. I actually did play it years ago. It was in 2009 or 2010 for a youth theater company that Jeff Wallach directed. I was maybe 19 at the time and it was my third role ever and I had no training to speak of. So to do it again, this many years later with such an amazing production company and cast is really something. And I mean we have some AMAZING singers. Our music director, Brent Wilson, works with the Santa Barbara Opera and he’s fantastic. Our director, Brian Hotchkin is phenomenal, too. They both have a wonderful vision that just meets together perfectly. So for me, to be able to delve into this role again, with all these different elements, has been a dream come true. I think people are going to be a little shocked. I’m often placed in a box, which is fine. Every actor has his type, but this is my chance to step out of that box and show people my versatility as a dramatic actor.
VCOS: Sondheim tests your limits as a performer – how does this show challenge you?
ANDREW: With Sondheim, not only does he completely rework everything you believe about singing musical theater – I mean, the music in this show is written very much like an opera, so it’s very operatic, not only in the way it is written, but in how we are performing it. With any Sondheim show, essentially you have to relearn how to breathe and sing at the same time, because a lot of it, especially with my character, is very conversational. But at the same time, you have to remember to hit the notes the right way to make it sound good. With Sondheim, every single note is so well planned and you have to nail it. If you don’t, you’re doing a disservice to him, yourself, and to the audience. So in addition to being crazy and slitting throats and being a moody, violent serial killer, I also have to remember to stay on pitch. In my opinion, Sweeney Todd is his most melodically memorable score, and is probably his masterpiece because the music is so memorable, hummable, dramatic, and loud. It’s a blast to sing.
VCOS: For the first time, I get to see you playing straight man to your co-star, who is playing Mrs. Lovett. How is that working out?
ANDREW: It’s challenging! During “A Little Priest,” at that point in the play, Sweeney has basically cracked. He’s just lost his chance to kill the judge and feels like he has lost any hope of getting revenge. In “Little Priest,” it’s so much fun because my Mrs. Lovett is being played by Macaria Martinez, and she is taking a whole new approach to that character. In “Little Priest,” we really get to work off of each other well, because it’s very vaudevillian in nature. There are puns and little tongue-in-cheek jokes and we get to be campy. Essentially, Sweeney is completely crazy and Mrs. Lovett is taking advantage of that by proposing this crazy scheme, and she sees it as her time to get closer to Sweeney. So during that song, I get to let loose a bit and go into the Andrew Metzger comedy zone. Not completely, mind you, but I definitely get to spread my wings a bit more. But during 95% of the play, it’s a very different place for me to be, versus my usual character work. I still get to be wild-eyed and loud, but it’s a different connotation completely. But I think I’m going to enjoy, for the first time, being able to make people feel sad and scared vs. just laughing. People are going to be saying to me, “Andrew? Are you OK?”
VCOS: How is the barber chair contraption shaping up? What are they doing with that?
ANDREW: Here’s our spin on that. Due to staging and budget restraints, we’re taking a new approach to that whole thing. The barber chair is very iconic in a fully staged Broadway production, but there are some wonderful black box productions and the televised concert versions that didn’t have the chair contraption and the slide. I don’t think people are going to walk out and go, “Oh, that show was missing the chair.” But the way we’re staging it is actually going to work very well. Sometimes the gimmick of the chair can distract from the true heart of the show, which is dealing with obsession, loss, and hope. I think that taking the chair out of the equation lets the audience focus more on that.
VCOS: Is there a full orchestra?
ANDREW: Yes, we have a wonderful orchestra. I got to hear and sing with them for the first time yesterday and they are absolutely phenomenal. I’ve never worked with an orchestra that sounds this crisp. And they just started looking at the music on Sunday. It was beautiful and I cannot wait for the audience to hear this orchestra. In addition to them, we also have the Ventura College Choir backing up the ensemble music. Brent Wilson teaches the class and organized the group and brought them in. He’s a masterful musician. He took essentially the score and adapted it for the choir and it’s going to sound absolutely beautiful I think that’s going to be another element that audiences haven’t seen before. It’s such a full, beautiful, Sondheim choral arrangement. I got goosebumps during “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” when we started our tech run yesterday.
Sweeney Todd plays at Ventura College this Thursday through Sunday, May 19-22. For dates, showtimes, and directions to the college, visit the VC On Stage Calendar.