Bloody good time
Pacific Opera Project makes its move for attention with ‘Sweeney Todd’
By Carl Kozlowski 10/18/2012
Josh Shaw wanted to make a splash on the Pasadena arts scene for the newly formed Pacific Opera Project (POP). But facing competition from a broad array of theaters, orchestras and dance groups, Shaw finally realized that the way to get noticed was to literally make that splash — with lots of blood.
And so it is that POP is concluding its first season with a colorful production of Stephen Sondheim’s blood-curdling and barbarous musical thriller “Sweeney Todd,” the story of a barber who enjoys killing his clients and turning them into meat-pies. With five performances launching Saturday at Pasadena’s Porticoes Theatre, the show marks a perfectly timed introduction to the innovative troupe.
“We’re a new company, and our biggest problem is letting people know that we’re doing something,” says Shaw, POP’s artistic director. “People who do know us love what we’ve done. We figure it’s a big name play, so get them in the door with this, have about 1,000 people see it between our shows here in Pasadena and later ones in Santa Monica and then have them hooked for the more traditional opera ‘La Boheme’ after.”
“Sweeney Todd” marks POP’s fifth production, which will be quickly followed by “La Boheme” a week later. According to Shaw, one major goal is “that every time we stop a show, we have people asking what’s next?”
Indeed, that battle plan of rolling out one quality production after another of classic shows has paid off, with POP now offering attendees a cast of at least 35 actors and a large chorus to boot. The combination of all those voices not only provides a stunning auditory experience for guests, but also creates a strong visual impression, especially considering the intimate space they’re all utilizing.
“We want to have people who’ve never seen opera before see that it’s not just fat people standing in one place singing, and not like Bugs Bunny cartoons,” says Shaw. “In addition, most opera singers want to do musicals, too, so we have 35 to 40 people in the cast and still had to turn people down for the chorus, which is unheard of In LA. I get to design and direct, and it’s a complicated and exciting story.”
POP was born out of its founders’ desire to create a live opera theater that regular folks could actually afford to see, as the Los Angeles Opera has for years priced its tickets in the stratosphere. At the same time, many small theaters weren’t providing a high-quality experience for attendees and actors.
Shaw believes POP found the perfect solution by setting up house at the Porticoes Theatre. He had rehearsed there with Opera A LA Carte for a few Gilbert and Sullivan shows and had also heard good feedback about the theater from another resident troupe, the Royal Repertory Co.
After an extensive renovation by St. James Methodist Church, where the theater is based, POP was able to move into Porticoes and has found its intimate dimensions serve “Sweeney Todd” well.
“This production is more fun than I could ever imagine,” says Shaw. “The reality is that it’s a show designed to be on a big stage and with microphones, so we’re facing that obstacle with an intimate stage and small orchestra. One challenge is just being heard, but the cast is huge and the theater small, so we’ve had some creative ways of getting everyone in the space.”
Add in the fun technical aspects of people dying and exiting the stage on a slide, plus copious amounts of fake blood, and Shaw considers “Todd” his most difficult theatrical challenge ever. With just 10 days remaining until opening night at the time he was interviewed, Shaw was eagerly awaiting the arrival of the final lights and orchestra.
“If you’re an opera singer in your 20s or 30s, most have racked up $50,000 in student loans getting a master’s degree and often don’t get paid,” says Shaw. “Not that we pay them a lot, but we try to give them great exposure and publicity as well, because this is a real mission to provide quality, affordable opera that appeals to a wide base of people in Los Angeles.”
Pacific Opera Project presents “Sweeney Todd” at 8 p.m. Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday, and the following weekend at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday, at Porticoes Theatre, 2033 E. Washington Blvd., Pasadena. Tickets are $20. Call (323) 739-6122 or visit www.pacificoperaproject.com.