The star of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” has loved the Stephen Sondheim musical since he was a young teen, but never thought he’d land the title role. Artistic Director Jim Corti, the award-winner behind the Paramount Theatre’s Broadway Series in Aurora, made the dream come true for Paul-Jordan Jansen, who finds himself leading a deliciously nightmarish production. Haunting melodies and anthems carry an operatic zeal for passion, pathos and tragedy.
The storyline won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, with its tale of an English barber out for revenge, who murders his customers with a straight razor and, with his baker accomplice Mrs. Lovett, processes their corpses into meat pies. Corti adds a fine measure of zombie as the “meat” pies are devoured by the gentry of London. The superlative ensemble and Bri Sudia (as Mrs. Lovett), fresh from her star turn in Bernstein’s “Wonderful Town” at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, shine on a dread-inducing set turned slaughterhouse.
In speaking with reporter Renee Tomell, Jansen, an Ohio native who lives in New York City, said, “I fell in love with the show a long time ago; I started listening to the soundtrack when I was 13 and I was obsessed with it.” The following is an edited version of the rest of their conversation.
Renee Tomell: What’s your character about?
Paul-Jordan Jansen: Sweeney has one thing on the forefront of his mind and that is his revenge and to be reunited with his family somehow.
Tomell: What are some of the musical challenges in performing a Sondheim score?
Jansen: You have to know when to watch him [conductor and Music Director Tom Vendafreddo] for certain cues. It’s one of the most complicated scores in musical theater. With the amazing voices [of] our entire ensemble, I feel so privileged to work with them every night. They feel every bit of it. Whether’s it’s a two-show day or one-show day, they’re giving 110 percent at every single performance. That amps me up to be the best I can be as well.
Tomell: Humor provides welcome relief to the tension.
Jansen: The show is a dark comedy when you read it on paper – because of Mrs. Lovett. She carries a lot of the jokes. Bri, who has so many amazing ideas … and I have been able to communicate that pretty well. I think that’s why it’s been as well received as it has. People go in expecting it to be frightening. In turn, they’re having an amazing time.
Tomell: Name a favorite song from the show besides your own.
Jansen: I do love listening. Before the Pirelli miracle elixir scene, Patrick Rooney sings “Johanna.” He does it with such specificity and such grace. His voice just soars. He’s a fantastic performer.
Tomell: The set looms as a character in its own right.
Jansen: The grand scale of the set matches the intensity of the piece definitely. The design is so appropriate – a perfect complement to Jim Corti’s [vision]. I love getting to work on a set that’s multiple levels and a physical challenge. How can I get up there faster? Do I … skip a couple steps in terms of the music? It’s quite a workout. I feel energized at the end of each show. By the end of the week after eight shows, I have that high from the adrenaline from Sunday night’s performance.
Tomell: You call the part a dream role?
Jansen: To be an African-American man and be given the opportunity to play this role – that, to me, was huge. There are some times that African-American men who have been trained classically – or [a role] is more their forte – tend to be overlooked just because of the color of their skin. The fact I could come here and have Jim Corti welcome me in with open arms and give me this opportunity – I cherish this moment. I don’t know when it’s going to happen again. Any time I can step out on this stage, I consider it a gift. I feel really privileged. Even if I inspire one kid to say, ‘If he could do it, then so can I,’ that means the world to me.
Tomell: The Paramount offers the rare chance to perform with a 19-piece orchestra.
Jansen: We’re just spoiled. That’s the best word to describe it. You’re getting the quality of a Broadway show you’d see in New York City and the experience here in Aurora. You don’t find that in a lot of regional theater companies around the country. I’m lucky to be here.
If you go
WHAT: “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” PG-13-rated
WHEN: Wednesday through Sunday, through March 19
COST: $44 to $59
INFO: ParamountAurora.com and 630-896-6666