Kevin Dennis talks making Canadian Theatre history with ‘Sweeney Todd’

Kevin Dennis was only eight years old when he fell in love with acting. Growing up in the nineties in Hamilton, Canada, he and his friends would get together and make their own films just for themselves, not for the YouTube or social media hits like nowadays. They would come up with different concepts and stories and edit them to VCR tapes in Dennis’ basement.

“It was painstaking work, but so rewarding when you’d show them to five people in your living room and get one or two laughs. My sequel to Braveheart was a particular hit amongst friends and family,” he said.

Dennis has since come quite a long way from that kid making his own movies, and is now an internationally sought-after film, theatre, and voice actor, known for his work on shows like Reign and Busytown Mysteries, and the highly-anticipated animated feature Tabaluga, which will be making its way to theatres around the world later this year. Whether using his voice in a studio, standing in front of a camera, or performing on a stage, Dennis makes sure he is as authentic as possible with his performance, truly becoming his character for that moment in time.

“Even if the character is evil in nature, fantastical, or even a zombie, you have to make it relatable. Real. You can’t worry about being too big or too small in your performance, but rather be opinionated in your character. Always have something going on inside to keep your performance alive,” he said.

Dennis is known across Canada for his work, and although he is from Ontario, he has worked all over the country. For a few years, he worked in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Canada’s Atlantic coast, starring in iconic productions at the celebrated Neptune Theatre. In 2012, he played Pirelli in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and showed off his outstanding voice acting skills whilst on stage as it required multiple accents in different scenes, as well as an operatic tenor that could reach a High D (above Men's High C).

Sweeney Todd is an American musical theater masterpiece, written by the imitable genius, Stephen Sondheim. For musical theater actors, Sondheim is like Shakespeare; the most challenging parts to play and the most rewarding at the same time. It tells the infamous story of Benjamin Barker, aka Sweeney Todd, who sets up a barber shop in London which is the basis for a sinister partnership with his fellow tenant, Mrs. Lovett.

Sweeney Todd is a classic. It’s like the Hamlet of musical theater. Its central character is a murderer, but somehow Sondheim manages to make the audience side with him in the end. It’s a twisted story of survival, set in a dirty London landscape in the 19th century. It features an absolutely stunning musical score and the scenes are edgy and dramatic the whole way through. “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” is one of the best choral sequences in all of musical theater. It recurs throughout the story to keep the audience engaged and on the edge of their seats. Because the show is so challenging to produce, it doesn’t get done that often, making it a very special show to catch,” said Dennis.

Pirelli is one of the villains and an integral part of the story of Sweeney Todd, and Dennis loved the opportunity to play the iconic character. Pirelli has some very funny scenes and some extremely over-the-top songs to sing, which provide some comic relief from the very intense subject matter of the show. He’s a con artist, who only cares about himself and swindling money from unsuspecting poor people. He is greedy and careless however, which leads to his ultimate demise. He gets to take center stage with the entire ensemble surrounding him for his first entrance and song.

It is also essential that the actor playing Pirelli is able to sing like an Italian opera star, as well as play a convincing con-man. Dennis therefore made sure his voice was at its strongest, doing an hour of intense vocal exercises six times a week, on top of rehearsals in order to condition himself for the rigors of the gruelling performance schedule. They performed Sweeney Todd eight times a week, with double-show days every Saturday and Sunday. Conditioning was essential.

“There’s a scene where Sweeney and Pirelli are standing off and Pirelli is being very threatening to Sweeney. At the end of the dialogue, Pirelli bursts into song out of nowhere, with full orchestra. The challenge for the actor playing Pirelli is: “Where do I get my note?” In most productions, the orchestra violinist or keyboard player feeds him the note a moment before he sings. I feel like this takes away the dramatic effect of coming in strong with the lyric and orchestra out of nowhere. I’m naturally gifted with near perfect-pitch, or pitch relativity, so I was able to find the note perfectly from repetition, which would make the audience gasp every night at the moment when I made that vocal entrance. It was so cool. Not every actor playing that role can pull that off, so it made the experience that much more special for the company and of course, the audience,” said Dennis.

The production was a smash-hit, with many sold-out performances. Dennis’ extraordinary performance as Pirelli really put Dennis on the map in the Canadian Theatre scene. Many have told him that this was the best production of Sweeney Todd ever produced in Canada, and that it was one of the best casts ever assembled. For Dennis, it was like writing a piece of Canadian Theatre history.

“Playing the role of Pirelli is like a jewel in the crown. I feel like I accomplished something very challenging and special. It made me a stronger actor and singer and has opened up many doors for me since. If I ever get the chance to play it again, I would jump at the opportunity,” he concluded.

By Annabelle Lee
July 5th, 2019

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