Lavish dance numbers, catchy tunes and joyful celebrations with townsfolk—they’re the icky-sweet fodder of the vast majority of Broadway musicals.
But Stephen Sondheim didn’t believe that a great musical had to be “an unambiguous celebration about the positive joy of existence.” And Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which Sondheim wrote in 1979, certainly isn’t one. But it’s a hell of a lot of fun, and which is why TMCC Performing Arts director Paul Aberasturi spent years developing this production.
I had avoided the popular Johnny Depp film that was released last winter, not generally being a fan of gore (nor of Broadway musicals, frankly). And I was glad of it on opening night of the TMCC show because I was able to truly appreciate the magnitude of this production.
Company manager John Frederick, who also plays Anthony, had told me months ago that this Sweeney Todd production was not to be missed. But I was still blown away. A complicated system of scaffolding, wheeled stages and mechanized devices transform the Redfield Performing Arts Center into the gritty streets of 19th century London.
As the story begins, the dark, mysterious Sweeney Todd (Rod Hearn) returns home to London. Fifteen years earlier, Todd, formerly barber Benjamin Barker, was wrongly convicted of a crime by Judge Turpin (Scott House). Turpin exiled him in order to abscond with Barker’s beautiful wife, Lucy, and their daughter, Johanna. Now, as Sweeney Todd, Barker has come home for revenge.
Their boarded-up old home now sits above Mrs. Lovett’s Famous Meat Pie Shop, which sells the worst meat pies in London. Mrs. Lovett (Susan Sonnemaker) realizes Todd’s true identity and reveals that Lucy, after being kidnapped and raped, went mad and killed herself, leaving poor Johanna (Kelly Bevel) as Judge Turpin’s ward (and, as we learn later, his intended bride).
She rents him the abandoned apartment, returns his shiny razors to him, and helps him to hatch his ghastly plan to cut every throat in London (thanks to a fantastic hydraulic barber’s chair) until Johanna is returned, and Judge Turpin is dead. And all those bodies? Mrs. Lovett has some delicious ideas of her own to give the greedy Turpin and his toady, Beadle (Ryan Kelly), their just desserts.
Meanwhile, Anthony spies Johanna in Turpin’s window, falling instantly in love with her. He confides his desires to Mr. Todd, who plots a twisted series of events to recapture Johanna.
The members of the 6-piece orchestra, led by conductor/pianist Ted Owens, are truly the unsung heroes of this strong but difficult production, with its unfailingly complex and eerie score.
I particularly enjoyed Sonnemaker’s Mrs. Lovett, who is hilarious and sings remarkably well. Hearn’s Todd is exactly the right mix of evil and pitiable.
However, Mike Rapisora’s Tobias, the boy that Mrs. Lovett takes in after Todd kills his guardian, bothered me. He starts out as a slick huckster, but by the end of the show he’s oddly retarded or lobotomized. Also, Bevel’s Johanna was way too shrill; at certain points, her high notes made me (and, rather obviously, others in the audience) wince. Overall, the microphone volumes were too high, and the theater excessively warm.
Those issues aside, it’s a marvelous show to see on a spooky October evening, and the staging alone is worth the price of admission.