‘Sweeney Todd’ lures actor Don Richard back to KC

Don Richard returns.

The veteran actor who appeared on Broadway in “Jane Eyre’ and “Urinetown: The Musical” and came through Kansas City at least twice on national tours of “Sunset Boulevard” and “Wicked” was a regular presence on local stages for about 10 years.

In the late ’80s and ’90s he appeared in memorable productions at the Unicorn Theatre (“The Lisbon Traviata,” “Falsettoland”), the American Heartland Theatre (“Sherlock’s Last Case”), the Tiffany’s Attic and Waldo Astoria dinner theaters (“Smoke on the Mountain”) and Quality Hill Playhouse (“Forbidden Broadway”).

He also performed at Theatre for Young America, the Coterie and Starlight Theatre and landed small roles in one or two editions of “A Christmas Carol” at what was then Missouri Repertory Theatre.

And now Musical Theater Heritage has invited him back for its concert production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” Richard, who by all accounts is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, now gets to play a throat-slashing serial killer — the “demon barber of Fleet Street.”

“I’ve always wanted a chance to sing the score somewhere,” Richard said. “Didn’t know what role. Sweeney would be a great role. The Judge would be a great role.”

Richard said this was his first time to perform the material in any form.

“It’s not something you should try to do in two weeks, although we’re trying,” he said with a laugh.

Richard was aware of MTH’s reputation under artistic director Sarah Crawford for staging classy concert readings of classic musicals, including “Gypsy,” “1776” and “Big River.” When he heard that “Sweeney Todd” was coming up, he decided to audition.

“Sarah was great in the audition,” he said. “She really pushed me on some stuff. And I thought: Would I put myself in a totally vulnerable position trying something totally different this big and this fast? And so that’s what I took the challenge to do. What’s life without challenges? Sometimes I think I’m crazy. I know I’m crazy.”

Richard’s career took a decisive turn in the mid-1990s, when he was cast in a workshop production of a new musical, “Jane Eyre.” Award-winning director John Caird chose to stage it in Wichita, far away from the prying eyes of the New York press.

Caird was so impressed with Richard’s abilities that he kept him in the show as it evolved — first in a full production in Toronto and eventually on Broadway. One thing led to another, and eventually Richard performed for more than three years with the Chicago production of “Wicked.” And Chicago is where he’s based these days.

For “Sweeney,” Richard will be reunited with the fine musical-theater actress Cathy Barnett, with whom he first performed in the early 1990s. Barnett plays Mrs. Lovett, who makes pies from the remains of the demon barber’s victims. This will be Barnett’s first MTH show. But she’s glad to be working alongside Richard, whose musical expertise she has relied on in the past.

“I figure music out like an actor works it out,” she said. “The musical structure doesn’t make sense to me. So I have to learn how to do it by memorizing it. Don really gets it. Don knows how to count.”

Richard looks back on his stage experience in Kansas City and counts himself lucky.

“It gave me a sense of tackling such different diverse projects — different styles, different in content,” he said. “I remember learning to play musical instruments within weeks for ‘Smoke on the Mountain.’ I think I learned so much by watching the great actors I was watching. It was a thrill to watch the city grow.”

The Musical Theater Heritage production of “Sweeney Todd” begins performances tonight and runs through April 29 at the Off Center Theatre at Crown Center. For tickets call 816-842-9999 or go to .