In a rehearsal for Sweeney Todd, director Dennis Monn is trying to make sense of a challenging musical passage with musical director Ainsley Matich and cellist Helen Gillet, who is trying not to stumble while spitting out lines like "Poppin' pussies into pies." Monn turns to the cast and says "I hate (Stephen) Sondheim."
Then why did he choose to stage the musical, replete with Sondheim's hallmark wordy phrases and difficult vocal arrangements?
"It's just really fun for us to do something that's rarely done and really challenging," Monn says. "When I say I hate Sondheim, I think musically he's a master. He's a genius. But sometimes it just doesn't make sense. That challenge in the space of ours with those resources is just the type of thing I like to do."
Monn is staging an ambitious, rollicking production of the dark musical in the theater space of the AllWays Lounge and Theatre, which typically hosts alternative fare like New Orleans Fringe Fest shows, gritty burlesque and gender-bending shows. His acclaimed version of the classic The Threepenny Opera featured a large cast of actors and musicians drawn from across the New Orleans theater community, and many of them are back for Sweeney. This production of the musical theater standard, which was revived on Broadway and the West End several times and made into a 2007 Tim Burton film, infuses the classic with downtown's bohemian edge.
When Monn considered doing the musical, he immediately thought of musician and composer Ratty Scurvics and Gillet for the roles of Todd and Mrs. Lovett, who, fueled by revenge and financial desperation, respectively, team up to manufacture some unsavory meat pies. (Monn says he owes some inspiration for picking the piece to the Bywater meat pie factory that shares a wall with his studio.)
"I didn't even decide I was going to do (the show) until I spoke to Helen and Ratty," Monn says.
Scurvics is a friend and frequent collaborator of Monn's, and he played the menacing criminal Macheath, or Mack the Knife, in Threepenny Opera.
"Dennis really knows how to pick them for me," Scurvics says. "I think he's got me typecast."
"Sweeney, historically in all the research I've done, he's portrayed as angry the entire time," Monn says. "I'm really trying to get Ratty to play a softer Sweeney that grows into anger."
"There's some tragic qualities to (Todd), too. He doesn't start off a dick," Scurvics says about the role. "He really has a mess thrown his way. What is it that changes people? Everyone goes through these conditions and if they survive, they're completely different afterwards."
Gillet, who performs music often at the AllWays Lounge, both solo and with bands, doesn't often appear in musicals. As Todd's batty partner in crime, she plays the cello during one song in the production, and she says it's been challenging not having the instrument during the rest of the show.
"I'm more familiar with how to manipulate the cello, and I sing and play all the time, so the hardest part is not having the cello and having to do all this stuff with my body," she says. "It does feel very naked."
Monn's original idea was to have an "orchestral" production similar to that of the 2005 Broadway revival of the musical, in which the 10-person cast also provided the musical accompaniment. Gillet, Scurvics, Brian Coogan and Aurora Nealand will act in the play and play instruments during some songs, but the concept of an entirely orchestral production proved to be limiting.
"The instruments inhibited them from moving," Monn says. "I had to make that choice to not go that direction. Let's just find these really awesome moments where I think they'll shine as musicians within the characters."
"[A] lot of the music in (the revival) is really simplified," he says. "If you listen to some of the songs, they're not doing some of the harmonies that are written in the original score. They're simplifying it to where people are seeing them more as musicians rather than having these outrageous five-part harmonies, which is what Sondheim is kind of the master of, these really complex vocal arrangements."
Monn and set designer Adam Tourek have some creative staging planned for the small space and an immersive experience for the audience.
"I'm going to put audience wherever I can. I really want them to be in the midst of everything that's going on around them. Whenever characters are referring to people who would normally be in the cast, they'll be referring to people in the audience," he says. "It's not interactive, but definitely there's actors and singing and moving around all around you. Ideally, I want it to be creepy enough where people don't know where (the actors) are going to pop up and where they're going to be."
Besides Scurvics and Nealand, other Threepenny Opera alum appearing in this cast include Pandora Gastelum, Altercation and Raymond "Moose" Jackson.
"I like to choose shows with these people in mind," Monn says. "They all love each other."