SALT LAKE CITY — As Halloween approaches, Pioneer Theatre Company is opening the hit musical, “Sweeney Todd,” with its haunting melodies and elaborate staging — not to mention its sinister plot filled with revenge.
Among the talented cast is a young actor who maneuvers through it all, as a performer who is legally blind.
“Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention, please,” sings Blake Stadnik as an action-packed scene in the pub begins.
He plays street urchin Tobias Ragg, who comes to life through his beautiful voice and the poignant melodies of Stephen Sondheim. Stadnik said this show is his favorite musical.
“There are pieces of music in ‘Sweeney’ that feel like they reach into you and grab your heart and just hold you there,” he said.
The same could be said of him, an equity actor, who by his very presence makes a statement for all performers with disabilities.
“I was diagnosed when I was 6 with Stargardt Disease,” Stadnik said. “It’s very similar to macular degeneration. About nine months later, my eyes had degenerated enough that I was legally blind.”
He remembered being in the doctor’s office and hearing the doctor tell his mother that Blake should know about career limitations. It was then that his mother knelt in front of him and told her son never to use his blindness as an excuse.
Stadnik had to stop playing sports because he could no longer see the ball, but his parents enrolled him in dance and singing classes. At age 9, he fell in love with the theater.
“(We went to see) … the touring company of ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ in Pittsburgh, and at intermission, I turned to my mother and was like, ‘You can do this for a career?’” Stadnik said.
He graduated from Penn State University, participating in many productions including a senior showcase. That led to roles at a number of regional theaters across the country, and now, Stadnik has his debut at Pioneer Theatre Company.
“I heard from other actors and read online and thought it was a really cool theater to work at,” he said. “I just heard from my friends that (Utah) was a really beautiful place and a really positive experience.”
When a director tells the actors where she wants them to be in any given scene, it’s called blocking. They use the sets, the furniture or marks on the stage floor to show them where to go.
So how does Stadnik do it? He smiled broadly when asked.
“I trust that my fellow cast mates are going to be exactly where they need to be,” he said. “Then I gauge all of my spacing off of them.”
To see him maneuver that stage is amazing.
In this show, there’s an added challenge, Karen Azenberg said. She is both this show’s director and the company’s artistic director. She described the set as another stunning piece of work from designer George Maxwell and his team.
There was one thing, though.
“Our set design involved a big hole in the middle of the stage,” Azenberg said.
Stadnik simply found that exciting. He was up to the challenge.
“There’s a big hole in that stage,” he said. “Yeah, it’s really cool!”
Azenberg said Stadnik was always her first choice for the role.
“At the end of the day, he was far and away the best person we saw for the role,” she said. “It wasn’t even like there was a second choice … I don’t call it a disability in that case at all. It’s part of him and it’s part of what makes him extraordinary.”
Stadnik expressed gratitude.
“Because my eyes went bad, it’s really sort of what showed me this amazing world of the theater,” he said. “I don’t know if I would have found this had it not happened. So, in a way, it was sort of a blessing in disguise.”
It’s a blessing to him that he passes onto audiences wherever he goes.
“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” runs through Nov. 10 at the Pioneer Memorial Theatre on 300 South and 1400 East in Salt Lake City. The theater’s website says it is not suitable for children under 10, and even older children should be accompanied by an adult.