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A Role to Sink Her Teeth Into : Theater: When Beth Hansen puts on the apron of 'Sweeney Todd's' chef, it's a perfect fit. After that, the Westminster actress lets Mrs. Lovett do the work.


WESTMINSTER — Beth Hansen doesn't mean to sound peculiar, but she says it anyway: She feels "completely natural" playing Mrs. Lovett, the chef extraordinaire who makes meat pies from human corpses in "Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street."

If she and the role are a perfect fit on stage at Saddleback College's McKinney Theatre, Hansen said, "it's because I kind of put Beth away for three hours and let Mrs. Lovett do it all."

The buxom actress, who was dressed in colorful lounging pajamas for a recent interview, paused to sip from a glass of ice tea as she settled on a sofa in her condo living room.

"I know that may be a bizarre thing to say," she continued. "But the character just kind of happens. Mrs. Lovett is quicker than I am. She's wittier, more cunning. So I let her handle the whole performance.

"It seems esoteric. Weird, even. But you have to get that deeply into the character. If your focus goes off, your lyric is gone. And if your lyric goes in a show like this, you're hosed."

All its traps notwithstanding, "Sweeney Todd" is hugely entertaining when done right. Near-sellout crowds for the revival of the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler Broadway classic in Mission Viejo testify to that and to Hansen's stellar performance (as well as Jeff Paul's in the title role).

"Of all Sondheim's masterpieces, I think it's the best," Hansen said.

She notes that the musically demanding score is dense with passionate and ironic songs that do a lot more than haunt the ear: They provoke the mind, forward the plot, detail the action and define the psychology of what is, after all, a macabre tale about a serial killer and his cannibalistic helpmate.

"I've wanted to play Mrs. Lovett ever since I saw Angela Lansbury in the original New York production," Hansen said. "Now I'm finally old enough to do it."

The Iowa-born actress, who turns 36 in September, has been doing musical theater in Orange County for most of her life. Perhaps more than anyone she has earned the right to be called a hometown star, the county's "Ms. Broadway" if ever there was one.

Hansen grew up in Huntington Beach from the age of 13 and began performing in musicals at Marina High School. When Garden Grove's Gem Theatre opened in 1979, she played the ingenue Bonnie in its first show, "Anything Goes." Over the next five years she appeared in another 17 productions there.

Branching out to other local theaters by the mid-'80s, Hansen extended her reach on both sides of the footlights. She starred as Dolly Levy in "Hello, Dolly!" at Sebastian's West Dinner Theatre in San Clemente and was also musical director for "Kiss Me Kate" at the now-defunct venue.

At the Newport Theatre Arts Center in Newport Beach she staged "Side by Side by Sondheim," "The Robber Bridegroom" and "Working." At the Laguna Playhouse's Moulton Theatre in Laguna Beach she directed "Social Security" and "Big River."

More recently, she directed "Kiss Me Kate" for the Downey Civic Light Opera and an evening of theater songs for the Pacific Symphony at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.

"I've always been a little bit bossy and very organized," Hansen explained of her urge to do more than merely perform. "I love seeing the vision in my head come to fruition on stage."

Since 1985, she also has been on staff at Saddleback College helping to produce its Summer Stock series of musical revivals in the McKinney and Cabaret Theatres.

Apart from casting all the Broadway-style shows in the series for the last five seasons, she has directed "Tintypes," "Forbidden Broadway," "Tomfoolery," "The Little Shop of Horrors," "Side by Side by Sondheim," "Blame It on the Movies," "Funny Girl" and, earlier this season, "Nunsense."

In addition, Hansen played one of the two female leads in the Saddleback revival of "Pump Boys and Dinettes" several years ago and last season took over the starring role of Fanny Brice in "Funny Girl" on four hours' notice when the actress originally cast for the role became too ill to go on.

"I'm very satisfied with where my career is right now," said Hansen, who also teams up with George Quick (the director of "Sweeney Todd") in a satirical cabaret act as Sal and Amanda Gecko, a pair of low-rent lounge lizards.

"I don't feel I have to leave the area to do good theater. I guess I haven't really had the inclination to leave because I've always been lucky. Every time I'd close a show somebody would call and offer me another one.

"I once did move to Hollywood, though," she recalled. "I took everything up there, lock, stock and barrel. But I'm a docile person inside, and I couldn't stand it. I lasted three days."

Hansen eventually wants to establish her own theater troupe in the area. She and Quick have been seeking benefactors "who will believe in us and invest in us," she said. "Isn't that a pipe dream? 'Here's $2 million. Go have fun.' "

They're serious enough to have hired a real-estate agent, however, and they've been scouting properties.

"The county needs more good theater," Hansen said. "We need it desperately. There's a lot of stuff out there that just isn't any good."

Never married, the actress-director says she might consider changing that status if she could find a husband with similar theatrical interests. But she has her doubts.

"I live, eat and breathe this stuff," she said. "I'm at the theater six or seven nights a week. It's hard to find somebody willing to share that, and I'm not willing to give it up."

Besides, she has "a multitude of friends" for companionship, she noted, and a year-old cat named--of all things--Toddy.

* "Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," continues through Sunday at the McKinney Theatre, Saddleback College, 28000 Marguerite Parkway, Mission Viejo. Performances tonight through Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m. $14 to $16. (714) 582-4656.

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