"I've been looking forward to being evil," explains actor Michael Bulatao, currently playing the title character in Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, at Napa Valley College. "That part of this role really appealed to me," Bulatao adds, with sweet, engaging smile, "the evil part."
In Sondheim's celebrated musical, a vengeful barber wreaks havoc on Victorian England, slitting the throats of wealthy upper-class gentlemen and delivering the remains to his pie-making accomplice Mrs. Lovett (Suzi Gilbert), who grinds up the victims and serves them to customers as tasty entrées. After landing the role, however, Bulatao learned that the show's director, Jennifer King, didn't want him to play Sweeney Todd as merely a murderous, one-dimensional villain.
"Jennifer wanted me to find the humanity in Sweeney Todd," he says, "so I was very careful not to play him as simply twisted and evil. Once we got into rehearsals, I discovered that Sweeney Todd is actually just a very damaged human being. He's suffering from living in a social system that pits the classes against each other. He's been extremely hurt by that."
Whether evil or human, there's something hypnotic about bloody Mr. Todd. The Napa Sweeney is just one of two college productions currently happening in the North Bay. (The other, directed by Leira Satlof, opens this weekend at the Santa Rosa Junior College.) In the Napa production, with musical direction by Dr. Eve-Anne Wilkes, Bulatao is thrilled to be playing such an iconic character. It's his first time playing Sweeney, though his second time in a show by Sondheim; Bulatao was in the cast of the 2004 Broadway revival of Sondheim's Pacific Overtures.
"What surprised me about Sweeney was how loving he was," Bulatao suggests. "There was a time when he was a gentle, loving person, with a wife and daughter, but when all of that is taken away, it leaves him empty. That's why he finally embraces his evil side.
"That," Bulatao says, "was an incredibly important thing to discover—that Sweeney Todd's evil comes from his having lost so much. And with Sondheim's lyrics and music, so clever and beautiful, it all just makes this a wonderful character for an actor to play."
'Sweeney Todd' plays Thursday–Sunday through April 22 at the Napa Valley College Performing Arts Center (2277 Napa-Vallejo Hwy., Napa; Thursday–Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 2pm; $20–$25; 707.256.7500) and Thursday–Sunday through May 5 at SRJC's Burbank Auditorium (1501 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa; Thursday–Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm; $12–$18; 707.527.4343)