I’m on a Showboat

The all U student production takes on “The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” in its 53rd year.

Actors Joseph Pyfferoen (left) and Jake Wellington (right) greet guests for the Minnesota Centennial Showboat’s performance of The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Actors Joseph Pyfferoen (left) and Jake Wellington (right) greet guests for the Minnesota Centennial Showboat’s performance of The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Mark Brenden


âÄúThe Demon Barber of Fleet Street: The Melodrama of Sweeney ToddâÄù

What: Minnesota Centennial Showboat

When: Tuesday throughSaturday at 8 p.m. with matinees Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. at 2:30 p.m.

Where: Harriet Island Regional Park, St. Paul.

Cost: Prices vary from $20-$25

Now in its 53rd year on the mighty Mississippi, the Minnesota Centennial Showboat production packs as much into the experience as it does the play itself. Adorned in vaudevillian hats and red-and-white-striped garb, the actors are as much concierges as performers as they greet you at the door and tell you to enjoy the show.

The 2011 Showboat brigade takes on the famed melodrama âÄúThe Demon Barber of Fleet StreetâÄù by C.G. Bond, based on the original by George Dibdin-Pitt. Director Peter Moore said they are calling it âÄúThe Demon Barber of Fleet StreetâÄù instead of âÄúSweeney ToddâÄù in order to shake any confusion that they were putting on the Stephen Sondheim musical, perhaps the most famous version.

Though the performance tackles relatively dark subject matter âÄî a maniacal barber who murders his patrons âÄî the actors, who are all University of Minnesota students, make it festive with short musical numbers called âÄúoliosâÄù weaving through the actual play. In these intervals, the actors are not their characters in the play; they are just there to entertain you with song. So as the play darkens, the olios get sillier, accentuating both emotions with the contrast.

Overacting is undoubtedly part of the practice in melodrama. Actors react with exaggerated emotion to everything, a formula that could easily be exhausted. However, these student actors are able to use the melodrama as a vehicle to explore their acting chops, and it actually highlights the experience instead of ruining it. The over-the-top relationship between Sweeney Todd (Billy Mullaney) and Mrs. Lovett (Aeysha Kinnunen) is particularly well done âÄî both actors using just the right amount of hyperbole.

âÄúItâÄôs really easy to slip into making fun of the style,âÄù said Mullaney, a recent graduate of the UniversityâÄôs theater department who also rode the Showboat his freshman year. âÄúBut we are like, âÄòThis is real âÄî 100-percent honest.âÄô WeâÄôre not commenting on it; weâÄôre doing it.âÄù

The Showboat is certainly a hokey environment, wherein the actors do their best to make you forget youâÄôre in the 21st century and the audience members are encouraged to boo and hiss. However, these performers are able to look beyond the shtick, and they show a commendable sincerity in the process.

âÄúI think we are managing to avoid irony, because if weâÄôre at that place that everythingâÄôs real, [the audience] comes with us,âÄù Mullaney said.

For the actors, it becomes a full-time job welcoming new audiences into their melodramatic world. Doing the same show eight times a week for an entire summer can either be exhausting or freeing. BFA senior Haley Houck, who plays con-boy Tobias Ragg, said she plans to choose the latter, using the slew of performances to try something new every night within the confines of the script. Her director agreed with her sentiment.

âÄúThatâÄôs part of [the actorâÄôs] job in the long run âÄî to make it seem like you are doing it for the first time,âÄù Moore said

While it does come off as fresh as a first-time performance, the Showboat crew also displays an impressive measure of theatrical maturity for student actors. And whether or not the three-month endeavor proves arduous, they can indeed say that they spent their entire summer on a boat.