If you think “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” is a little bit too dark for your taste, Carrie Cimma suggests you think again.
An East Greenbush native and 1996 graduate of Columbia High School, Cimma plays Mrs. Lovett in the national touring production of the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical to be presented at Proctors for three performances Friday and Saturday.
The story centers on Benjamin Barker, alias Sweeney Todd, a vengeful barber who slits the throats of certain customers and leaves them to become the prime ingredient in Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies. Yes, the idea does sound a little unpleasant, but Cimma says to give the play a chance.
After all, the original Broadway production earned eight Tony Awards when it came out in 1979, and the 2005 revival won two Tonys and had four more nominations. There must be something people enjoy about it.
“There are scenes from the show that are just very universal human themes, and while we may not agree with the actions of Sweeney Todd, we can see where he’s coming from,” said Cimma.
‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’
WHERE: Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday
HOW MUCH: $55-$20
MORE INFO: 346-6204 or visit www.proctors.org
“He’s been wronged, and Mrs. Lovett, well, she just falls in love with him. People can understand and appreciate that.”
The play is set in London, where Sweeney Todd has returned after 15 years of being unjustly imprisoned. When he hears from his former landlady that his wife committed suicide after being raped by the judge who sent him to prison, Sweeney Todd vows revenge.
The musical, which opened at the Uris Theatre in March of 1979 and ran for 557 performances, was based on the 1973 play of the same name by Christopher Bond. The character Sweeney Todd first appeared as the main villain in a series of short stories in the middle of the 19th century. Historians differ on whether or not there actually was a Sweeney Todd.
The national touring production has been changed somewhat from the Broadway original, and, according to Cimma, the play now bears little resemblance to the 2007 movie directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp.
Movie missed humor
“It’s a black comedy, but one thing I didn’t particularly like about the movie is that they really passed over a lot of the humor,” said Cimma. “Sondheim and Wheeler are very funny people and there was a lot of comedy written into this musical, but I think Burton set out to do a horror film. As for me, especially with my character, I like to focus on the humor.”
Mrs. Lovett was played by Angela Lansbury in the 1979 original production, for which she won one of her four Tonys, and Patti LuPone played her in the 2005 revival and earned a Tony nomination. It’s not the shy ingenue role, but Cimma, now 30, has always considered herself a character actor.
“I had a little bit of Ethel Merman in me growing up, and I have that big, strong voice, so I was often cast in the crabby secretary role,” said Cimma, who has played Rizzo in “Grease” and Miss Flannery in “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”
“I’m well past the ingenue part, and that’s fine with me. I’ve also leaned toward the character parts.”
Cimma and her fellow cast members began rehearsals for “Sweeney Todd” in July. Just prior to that, she was part of the cast in the national touring production of “The Wedding Singer.”
“The company that produced ‘Wedding Singer’ is also producing ‘Sweeney Todd,’ so one of the people there called me when we were in Houston and told me to take a break and come on in and audition,” said Cimma. “I went through a couple of call-backs and I got very lucky. I consider it one of the top five roles in the theater for an actress, so I was very excited. I guess I fit what they were looking for.”
Cimma was also precisely what her nursery school teacher was looking for.
“She cast me as the ‘Gingerbread Man’ because she knew I’d be the only one to remember all the lines,” said Cimma. “From there my parents put me into dance class. I had all this energy that they were trying to harness.”
She learned how to dance at The Isabelle School of Dance in East Greenbush, and performed in the ensemble in “Annie” for the Schenectady Light Opera Company production in 1990. She also landed gigs with Mac-Haydn Theatre, Park Playhouse and the Spotlight Players in East Greenbush. Encouraged by her band director, Rick Hambright, and her choir director, Doug Porter, at Columbia High School, Cimma went to New York University and graduated in four years with a degree in theater. She’s been working ever since.
“I haven’t had a whole lot of gaps in my employment, so I’ve been one of the lucky ones,” said Cimma, who lives in South Harlem, just a few blocks away from the Apollo Theater. “I’ve either been doing regional theater or touring since I graduated. It never got so bad that I thought, ‘well, this might not work out.’ I’ve always been able to get work, so I guess I’m stuck.”
Cimma is stuck right where she wants to be. As for television and movies, she’s not about to turn down any offers, but the stage and musical theater are definitely her favorite art forms.
Theater is real
“I like the fact that theater is in real time,” she said. “Film doesn’t really interest me because I don’t think it would be that rewarding to me. You cry for five hours to shoot a three-minute scene and then you win your Oscar. TV’s another crazy medium. Don’t get me wrong. I’d do it. But to me, the theater is the more challenging and the more rewarding.”
This production of “Sweeney Todd” is particularly challenging. There are no musicians in the orchestra pit, the music being provided by the actors on stage. Cimma plays the glockenspiel (orchestra bells), percussion and tuba.
“My father played a little trumpet in high school, and I had a great aunt somewhere who supposedly had a great voice,” said Cimma. “I guess I got the bug from them.”