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A story with a subtitle like The Demon Barber of Fleet Street hardly needs much explaining. With recent stage revivals, a concert production starring the likes of Emma Thompson, and Tim Burton’s 2007 film starring Johnny Depp, Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd continues to thrill audiences and critics alike. PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which concludes the company’s 2015-16 season, is a delight for the ears and eyes.
The story follows Benjamin Barker, who, upon returning to London after banishment, seeks revenge on the nefarious Judge Turpin. Turpin stole Barker’s virginal daughter Johanna, which, Barker later learns, caused his wife, Lucy, to poison herself. Barker, under the alias Sweeney Todd, and a local pie seller Mrs. Lovett conspire to use their “talents” to serve up revenge. With his prized shaving razors, Todd slices open the throats of “less honorable folk” and Mrs. Lovett bakes them into “Christian redemption” to right the wrongs and free Johanna.
Harold Wheeler’s intricately detailed book and Sondheim’s masterful score create psychologically complex characters that struggle with their most sinful desires. Sweeney, though an American musical, plays more like a dark British satire on class collision. This production, directed by Jen Wineman, departs far from the maddening state of its characters and never quite embraces the macabre humor and darkness the story presents.
The material is thick with layers of political and social commentary, themes of social injustice, Faustian vengeance, under-aged marriage, and, of course, murder. This production rushes by many of the themes because the actors move around the stage at such a consistently rapid pace that we miss what is being said and key plot points. It would help to be a bit familiar with the story before going in.
In PlayMaker’s production, the roles of Sweeney Todd, Johann, and the young sailor Anthony are all performed by minority actors. Despite the non-traditional casting, the production did not seem to incorporate any racial implications into the performance. This seemed like a missed opportunity to further explore the show’s theme of injustice.
There are moments of dark humor throughout the show, notably the finale of Act I when a plan of revenge is devised during a pun-riddled song about cannibalism. Brian Owen in a featured role as rival barber Adolfo Pirelli and Julie Fishell as the crazed Beggar Woman also provided comedic highlights.
The achievements of Mark Hartman’s music direction (both with the orchestra and the cast) and Tito Hernandez’s choreography capture the musical’s grim tone with its ensemble’s committed characterizations. They keep the show in perpetual motion, though some staging choices distract the audience’s attention from one corner of the Paul Green Theater to the other.
As the brooding Todd, David St. Louis brought a suave, tormented spirit to the role with a lush baritone voice to boot. As Mrs. Lovett, Annie Golden struggled with some lyrics on opening night. In her defense, Sondheim is known to rarely give the same lyric twice. Despite this, her Mrs. Lovett was full of passion and fervor. Her portrayal, however, paid little attention to the character’s light-heartedness that masks her deeper desires, a source for many comedic opportunities in the show. It is clear from her work elsewhere (Broadway’s Violet and Assassins and Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black) that Golden has high comedic ability. I look forward to seeing her discoveries as her character further develops in the next two weeks of performances.
Jade Arnold’s Anthony was youthfully convincing and high school senior Mya Ison’s Johanna floored the audience with her mature voice and acting abilities. PlayMakers favorites Ray Dooley, Jeff Cornell, and Julie Fishell delivered their characters with expert attention to detail. As the vocally challenging Beadle, Blake Segal was menacingly taut and precise.
A standout of the evening was Max Bitar as the innocent Tobias Ragg, who is recruited by Mrs. Lovett to assist in running the pie shop once business begins to boom. Bitar’s performance is worthy of a separate review; he brought new dimensions to a character who could easily fall into the background against the strengths of actors like Golden and St. Louis. When Bitar performed, he gleamed as brightly as the smiles on the audience’s faces that were watching him.
Despite the sanitized feel of the production, this Sweeney is worth seeing for its memorable performances, high quality production values (Jan Chambers’ funhouse set is gloriously epic as are Bill Brewer’s period costumes), and strong vocal talent. Once the production finds its footing in Act II, the play goes off into a nightmarish world that will leave you captivated until the heart-stopping climax.
Sweeney Todd continues through Saturday, April 23. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.