Gregory Brumfield is taking extra care of his throat these days, and with good reason.
Brumfield, a Philomath resident, is two weeks into the Majestic Theatre’s production of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” the musical thriller that some (Brumfield included) consider Stephen Sondheim’s “masterpiece among masterpieces.”
In his first appearance on the Majestic stage, Brumfield is playing the lead, Sweeney Todd, the murderous barber driven mad by his desire for revenge against a corrupt judge and who dispatches victims in his barber’s chair.
It’s a demanding role, and it takes a toll on Brumfield’s bass-baritone voice. “Sweeney Todd” is the most musical of Sondheim’s works, with more than 80% of it either sung or performed with a musical underscore.
That suits the 61-year-old Brumfield just fine – “Sweeney Todd” has the scope of an opera, and he’s been singing opera professionally since the 1980s.
But it also explains why he was sipping on a cup of tea during a recent interview at Imagine Coffee.
“My biggest worry is the throat,” he said.
IF YOU GO What: The Majestic Theatre’s production of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”
When: Five performances remain in the show’s run: Saturday, May 13 at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, May 14 at 2:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, May 19-20, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, May 21 at 2:30 p.m.
How much: Tickets are $20 for adults and $17 for students and seniors. As the show approaches the end of its run, tickets may become scarcer. Click here to buy tickets.
Of note: Turn off your cellphone before the show begins.
Keeping the throat healthy isn’t the only challenge Brumfield faces in “Sweeney Todd.” The Tony Award-winning musical is not exactly a walk in the park.
“Yeah, there’s a very dark quality to it,” he said. “And it’s emotionally draining. A couple of times on stage, I’m sobbing, especially at the end of the show. In our final scene, it’s very, very wrenching. And it’s emotionally challenging, for sure. And draining.”
It helps that the cast and crew of the Majestic’s production don’t have to perform the show seven times a week, the way they do in the current Broadway revival. With Majestic performances mostly confined to the weekends, that allows time to let the darkness dissipate, Brumfield said.
It also helps that his wife, Roberta Riportella, a professor at Oregon State University’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences, also is in the show, in the ensemble.
“She’s my biggest fan and also my greatest critic,” Brumfield says. “She keeps me on task” – and isn’t shy about giving her spouse performance notes: “She’ll say, ‘maybe you’re singing this a little too harshly, maybe you should sing that a little more sotto voce.’”
In fact, Gregory and Roberta first met when they were both cast in a show in Madison, Wisconsin. The show was “Big River,” the adaptation of “Huckleberry Finn” with songs by Roger Miller. That was 20 years ago. The next time the two shared a stage, it was for the Majestic’s “Sweeney Todd.”
In between, Brumfield has been no stranger to stages, whether he’s performing in musicals or, more frequently, opera.
Brumfield grew up in Gary, Indiana, the youngest of nine children, and was one of those kids who liked to sing around the house. His mother thought he had a good voice and signed him up for voice lessons with a woman named Eva Brooks.
Brumfield worked with Brooks from the time he was 8 until he graduated from high school. (Brooks’ son, Avery, went on to fame as an actor, including the lead in “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.”) Eva Brooks instilled in her young charge a love of classical repertoire such as Handel’s “Messiah.”
He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison and stayed active in theater and opera circles, performing throughout the Midwest. When Riportella landed a job at Kansas State University, they moved to Manhattan, and Brumfield continued performing, including stints with the Wichita Grand Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Riportella got a position at Oregon State University, and the two moved to the mid-valley. He works at Crescent Valley High School with the Corvallis School District’s WINGS Transition Program, for students between the ages of 18 and 21 who are eligible for special education and who have not earned a high school standard diploma.
He also got involved in the mid-valley music scene, performing with the Portland Opera Company (he’s on tap for its 2023-24 season) and the Corvallis Repertory Singers.
And then Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” came calling.
“It was a dream role,” he said.
Brumfield said it wasn’t particularly hard to get a sense for the character of Sweeney Todd: “He’s really intent on revenge. He doesn’t have a big character arc.”
The music, however, was another story.
“The difficult part was just learning the music. The melodies are beautiful. But with Sondheim, you have to count the rhythms, and the meters change almost every other measure. … I’ve always got a metronome going mentally to keep me on task.”
But just because Brumfield is playing a character he calls a sociopath and psychopath doesn’t mean he can’t have some fun with the role.
At a critical point in each performance, Brumfield gets a chance to interact with the audience – or, at least, audience members seated in the front row.
He goes down to the stage apron, he said, and makes eye contact with audience members. “And I say, ‘You, sir — you, sir — welcome to the chair.’ I see some people in the front row, and they seem pretty shocked.”
Before that moment, Brumfield usually scouts out patrons in the front row for the treatment.
One night, he witnessed a woman in the front row whose cellphone rang during the performance. “And I said, ‘I’m definitely going for her.’”
The demon barber of Fleet Street wants you to turn off your cellphone before the show starts.