By: Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler
Produced by: Hillbarn Theatre
Directed by: Josh Marx
Music direction by: Rick Reynolds
Featuring: Keith Pinto, Heather Orth, Chris Vettel, Sam Nachison, Jennifer Mitchell, Jaron Vesely, Jesse Cortez, Ross Neuenfeldt, Juliet Green, Karen Althoff, Kyle Arrouzet, Juan Castro, Ryan Courtin, Ron Houk, Danny Navarrete-Estassi, Elena Ron, James Shott, Sarah Thermond, Molly Thornton, Catherine Traceski, and Rachel Witte
When: January 24–February 10, 2019
Where: Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 East Hillsdale Boulevard, Foster City
Tickets: $35–$52. Call 650-349-6411, extension 2, or visit www.hillbarntheatre.org.
a bucket-list role for Heather Orth
It is to drool for.
Hillbarn Theatre — which has built a solid reputation for staging excellent shows, even in its awkward little space — is producing “Sweeney Todd,” with an amazing cast: Keith Pinto as the Demon Barber himself, and Heather Orth as Mrs. Lovett.
Pinto is a stunning song-and-dance man who was outrageously good as the Emcee in Hillbarn’s fabulous 2017 production of “Cabaret,” and over-the-top brilliant in the title role of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” at The Stage in San Jose.
Orth is a powerful presence with a great voice who has been wonderful in lots of shows at Hillbarn, Broadway by the Bay and many other theaters in the Bay Area.
Putting Pinto and Orth together in this show has awesome potential. Both bring powerful commitment to every role they play, and since Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett are both violent, murderous sociopaths, the expectations for this production are high.
The shorthand on the musical: Sweeney Todd, who had been railroaded into prison by the evil judge who stole his wife and daughter, finally gets out and comes back to Fleet Street. Mrs. Lovett gives him a place to stay and his barber tools, including the straight-edge razor he will use to slice throats, providing Mrs. Lovett with meat for her suddenly popular pies.
“Keith is wonderful,” Orth said during a recent phone interview. This is my second time working with him. We did ‘Secret Garden’ together. We found we work really well together, have a natural affinity for each other.
“I was cast pretty early, so was lucky enough to do the callbacks for ‘Sweeney.’ Something felt really right with Keith. There’s nothing more fun than singing ‘A Little Priest’ with him! It’s so fun to be with him on stage. It carries over to what the audience will experience.”
While Pinto can do light and funny — he was recently a success in “Me and My Girl” at 42nd Street Moon in San Francisco — he can also powerhouse through roles such as the Emcee and Hedwig. “He’s got this great weird darkness to him,” Orth said, “that people wouldn’t expect. He can access that dark, weird, scary streak.”
For Orth, playing Mrs. Lovett is a dream come true.
“It’s been on my bucket list for a long, long time,” she said.
“Mrs. Lovett — I love that character so much! I grew up as a devotee of Angela Lansbury (who created the role of Mrs. Lovett for the 1979 Broadway show). The most interesting thing about her, like any great villain, is that she is absolutely convinced she is the hero of her own story — a fabulous success story of a woman who creates a successful business ... who falls in love and lives happily ever after. I love the resilient fantasy world she lives in. She so badly wants the fairy tale life ... She is an interesting bag of contradictions. She is a loving, benevolent person, but turns to cutting up people, doing whatever she needs to do to get the life she deserves. She is so covetous of things people around her in the world have.”
Orth is six feet tall, and has been since her freshman year at San Mateo High School, which has led her to often playing older than her age. For instance, she was terrific as Mama Rose in “Gypsy” at Broadway by the Bay in 2011, when she was 27.
Now 34, she says she is finally playing to her age, such as with Mrs. Lovett.
Of interest: She is about four inches taller than Pinto.
“I think the height difference makes this work in a really brilliant way,” Orth said. “You look at us and say ‘this is obviously not a match.’ It highlights her delusion that he is her white knight and is meant for her.
“At the end of the day, it’s all part of her delusion. You look at it and say, ‘That doesn't make any sense.’ But he represents all she’s wanted. Having him come back, suddenly she has the opportunity to be with him.”
There is also the factor that Pinto is “huge on stage,” as Randall King of San Jose Stage Company put it, in a recent phone call. Size on stage is a matter of something other than measurement. I saw Zero Mostel in “Fiddler on the Roof,” and when there was a terrifying, 15-foot-tall ghost on stage, all eyes were on Mostel anyway.
It’s going to be exciting to see two powerful actors — Pinto and Orth — dominating the stage in this Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler masterpiece.
“I grew up on musical theater,” said Orth. “I’ve loved Sondheim from an early age. I was captivated by this show, which is dark, interesting, and complex.”
Her mother, Robyn Tribuzi, is a dance teacher at San Mateo High, and her stepdad, Attilio Tribuzi, is a music teacher at the same school. “I grew up in a very theatrical and musical household,” Orth said.
Her mom roped her into doing "Cats" at Broadway by the Bay, in 2013.
"My mom choreographed and directed it," Orth said. "'You can't do that! Please don't cast me!'" Orth said she told her mom. "She had to convince me to do it."
"Heather Orth as Grizabella looks more aggrieved than old," said reviewer Joanne Engelhardt in The Daily News, "but all is forgiven the moment she sings 'Memory,' the signature song from 'Cats.'”
"My mother has a great, innate sense of what makes a show work," said Orth. "What a musical needs to shine and to pop. She made it this really enjoyable, lean, mean version of 'Cats.' She pulled stories out of it you wouldn't know were there. It was a lovely opportunity to work with my mother."
A show she is "most proud of," Orth said, is "Jesus Christ Superstar," which she did last year for Ray of Light Theatre in San Francisco, as part of an all-female cast. In his review for The Mercury News, Sam Hurwitt said, "Speaking of Caiaphas, Heather Orth is entertainingly impassive as the deep-voiced and crafty high priest."
"This concept was so brilliantly executed," said Orth. "The way it resonated with audience. It was by women, for women. It was really incredible to showcase all the talented women in the Bay Area. There are always more women coming out for musicals, but just not enough roles."
She called the show "Andrew Lloyd Webber's only good and pure score. It's not bogged down by grandiose ideas of himself."
Orth played trumpet in school, moving on to tuba and Sousaphone. She also plays piano.
She also took singing lessons, as her mother “recognized that she had created a theatrical monster.”
Even her day job is in the theater: Orth is the marketing and communications manager at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. "I started there about ten years ago," Orth said. "I did some child wrangling (taking care of child actors during shows), did that for a good number of years, then three years ago, looking for regular employment, started in the box office for a year, and marketng and communications manager for almost two years."
Orth did perform in "Sweeney Todd" once before.
"I did 'Sweeney Todd' in high school," she said. "I wanted to play Mrs. Lovett then. I ended up playing Beadle Bamford, a man. I had to do the show in full, Victorian drag at 16. I was just incensed!" She had to press down her breasts and wrap them, and wore "a little, short, boy haircut wig. ... But they didn't have any boys who could sing that part." So she got the call.
She developed as a singer “haphazardly,” she said. “I am lucky in that I have a very good ear. I always have had. It helped me immensely with music and with dialects. I grew up mimicking a lot. Disney musicals. I’d hear things I like, then try to mimic it.
“I got into that mindset — this person sang it this way — but then I realized I could be Heather Orth, and sing it my way. I took lessons from Jeannette Sacco-Belli … I always struggled because my voice is fairly unique, it tends more toward tenor and contralto. Not many people write for that, for rich, low tones. My teachers tried to push me toward a more operatic, classical range. Which made for a good (vocal) toolbox.
“It took me a long time to make peace with that. To understand how I can find the roles, or make them work for me.”