Sweeney Todd is a difficult musical to produce. It has a big cast, a lush score, lyric-heavy operatic songs, no dialogue and a really gruesome plotline. So, how does Runaway Stage Productions juggle all these challenges in its current version of Stephen Sondheim’s tale of a barber gone bad? Actually, bloody damned well.
The macabre storyline of Sweeney Todd, subtitled The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, is, shall we say, cutting-edge. A barber unjustly accused of a crime returns to Victorian London many years later to exact revenge on all who did him wrong. Poised with his razor, Todd breathes in satisfaction before cutting his wide swath of self-justice on the milky-white necks of his unsuspecting victims.
And that’s not all. Turns out his landlady, Mrs. Lovett, who lacks filling for her meat pies, has come up with a win-win solution for that little problem of body disposal. Her “meat pies” become the taste treats of London.
Sweeney Todd is an entertaining gothic thriller tinged with perverse ghoulish humor, all told in Sondheim’s complex, witty songwriting. The score is a bit overwrought, but the clever song lyrics make up for it.
This is a mature musical for Runaway Stage, which usually stages family-friendly Broadway favorites filled with young talent. The material is darker, and the cast, filled with new faces, is more experienced. All the leads are very impressive, including Ruth Phillips as an animated Mrs. Lovett, Craig Howard as Pirelli, and Kevin Caravalho as Tobias. But the star is a brooding, menacing Ray Fisher as Todd. He blesses us with a dramatic flair, a great voice and amazingly emotive eyebrows.
The theater itself captures the gothic look of dreary London with bleak colors and gloomy lighting. The period costumes are wonderful. And the rotating set that depicts the barber shop, the pie shop and the basement “cooking” area is a clever device. The pièce de résistance is the tilting barber chair poised over a trap door, so the throat-sliced murder victims slide from chair to oven with one clever lever pull from the barbarous barber.