A murderous, throat-slashing barber inhabits a dystopian future in Ashland High School's production of the classic musical "Sweeney Todd."

In traditional versions, Todd dispatches his victims in England in the 1800s, but Jeremy Johnson, director of the AHS version, wanted to highlight continuing disparities between the rich and the poor in modern society.

"In the 19th century in London, a lot of people were making a lot of money through international trade and manufacturing," Johnson says, who is also an Oregon Shakespeare Festival actor. "'Sweeney Todd' looks at imbalances of wealth and power in London. A lot of people were living in abject poverty and squalor. That's still something we have to look at in our own lives today. The world's wealth is accumulated in the hands of a few. There are still people living around the world and in this country in squalor."

The audience rewarded the performers with a standing ovation on opening night March 2. Performances continue at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, March 9-11, with a matinee performance at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 12.

Tickets for reserved seats are $22 and can be purchased only online at www.showtix4u.com. Other tickets are $17, $12 for students and seniors, and can be purchased at showtix4u.com, by calling 866-967-8167, or at Paddington Station, Tree House Book or Music Coop.

"The scenery reflects different locations in the play," Johnson says. "It's all meant to look worn and decrepit — reflecting the decay of modern society. The clothes and even the make-up reflect that, too. The characters all look a bit unwell. The imbalance of power has resulted in buildings, people and objects all looking worn, dirty and abused."

A tale of vengeance is at the center of the story.

Unjustly exiled, Todd has returned to seek revenge against a lecherous judge who framed him and ravaged his young wife. Todd opens a barber shop above a failing pie store operated by Mrs. Lovett.

Jonathan Connolly plays Todd, with Sierra Milburn portraying the conniving pie shop proprietor. Dylan Kistler is Judge Turpin. The sprawling production includes 22 cast members, plus 20 technical students running the show from backstage.

As the deaths mount, the chopped up victims end up in the pies — which become a hit with customers.

"It winds up with society literally eating itself," Johnson says.

He says the talented and enthusiastic cast has embraced the challenge of the musical. 

Despite the macabre subject matter, "Sweeney Todd" over time has become a crowd-pleaser, Johnson says.

The villainous barber first appeared in Victorian tales in the mid-1800s, but was given a more sympathetic treatment in a 1973 play version by Christopher Bond. Todd seeks vengeance on the judge after being wrongly imprisoned in an Australian penal colony for 15 years. His wrath spreads, encompassing society as a whole.

In 1979, composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim and playwright Hugh Wheeler created a musical adaptation, "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street."

Their musical won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and was later adapted to the big screen by director Tim Burton with Johnny Depp in the lead role.

"'Sweeney Todd' is a great story, extravagantly told," Johnson says. "It has great characters, a great plot and writing, biting language, stunningly beautiful music and a powerhouse score. It's hard to resist a great story well told."

The musical contains mature subject matter and is recommended for ages 11 and older. 

Other key cast members include Nur Shelton as Anthony, Brook Hall as Johanna, Kyle Storie as Beadle, Audrey Cirzan as Beggar, Isaiah Brown as Tobias, Grace Pruitt as Pirelli and Tessa Buckley as Madame Fogg. 

Karl Iverson is musical director, Travis Moddison is musical conductor, Jaclyn Miller is choreographer, Ariel Greninger is costume designer, Natalie Scott is set designer, Jesse Purkerson is technical director, Andy Palstring is master carpenter, Bart Grady is lighting designer, Liisa Ivary is dialect coach, Laura Derocher is vocal coach, Virginia Hudson is wig designer and Nellie Strong is stage manager.