Watching this production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, I felt ridiculously lucky. The show is so strong and its storefront location in Gastown so intimate that I felt like a cast of stars had shown up in my living room to perform a masterpiece.
The story is wicked and the music wickedly difficult. Sweeney has returned to London from court-ordered banishment to Australia and he is hell-bent on avenging himself on the corrupt Judge Turpin. Turpin framed Sweeney because the judge lusted after—and eventually raped—Sweeney’s wife Lucy. Lucy is out of the picture—suicide, apparently—and Turpin has become the guardian of Lucy’s 15-year-old daughter Johanna. Turpin is now creeping on Johanna, too.
When Sweeney meets up with Mrs. Lovett, whose pie shop is failing, inspiration strikes her: maybe Sweeney should use his razor to slit throats—judges’ throats, for instance—and she should bake the corpses into meat pies. “You know me,” she says. “Sometimes ideas just pop into my head.”
On the solid structure of Hugh Wheeler’s book, composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim has built an astonishing musical edifice. His songs are lyrical (“Green Finch and Linnet Bird”), heartbreaking (“Not While I’m Around”), and chilling (“City on Fire”). They can also be breathtakingly witty. In “A Little Priest”, Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett get giddy imagining various customers as pies: “… if you’re British and loyal,/You might enjoy Royal Marine!/Anyway, it’s clean./Though of course, it tastes of wherever it’s been!”
This lyric might give a tiny hint of how rhythmically complex the score is.
Director Chris Adams has gathered a golden cast for this production. When you hear Warren Kimmel (Sweeney) or Jonathan Winsby (Pirelli, a rival barber) sing in such close quarters, you find out that your body is a resonating chamber—and it’s thrilling. Both of these guys have astonishing voices and both of them can act: Winsby is hilarious as the cartoon Italian, and Kimmel fills all of Sweeney’s darkest corners. That said, it was a relief when Kimmel’s Sweeney finally loosened up in “A Little Priest”. More colours earlier would be even better.
Alex Nicoll plays Johanna’s love interest, Anthony Hope. As his surname implies, Anthony is innocent. That’s not an easy quality to play, but Nicoll nails it.
Colleen Winton is also at the top of her game as Mrs. Lovett. Hers is the acting performance that drives the evening—always listening, always sly..
It might seem churlish to single out one performer for more negative comment but, for me, Stephen Aberle doesn’t bring sufficient threat to the role of Judge Turpin. Turpin reminds me of another judge, Brett Kavanaugh, but Aberle doesn’t find that kind of force: because it comes too easily, his rage looks more like petulance.
There’s a lot more to like, though. Set designer Sandy Margaret seats some of the audience around a long table in the middle of the shoebox space and the surface of that table becomes the main playing areas. (Blood spatters.) Director Adams moves his huge company—there are 17 players—around the table, onto the table, through the narrow aisles, out the door and onto Water Street. And choreographer Nicol Spinola builds on that, often with the power of unison: hands shoot up, the ensemble crouches.
Music director Wendy Bross Stuart captains the complicated musical ship and, although this is an Equity co-op production, which means there can’t have been much of a budget, Emily Fraser’s costumes are lavish when they need to be and perfect in every detail.
For sustained passages watching this Sweeney Todd, I had goosebumps. And it’s moving to know that these artists are all throwing themselves into this show for the love of it. (It’s a co-op, as I mentioned.)
It’s moving but silly. Some more moneyed producer has to pick this one up. Any remount would have an eager audience: tickets for this run are already sold out.
SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Hugh Wheeler. Directed by Chris Adams. Produced by The Snapshots Collective.In Mrs. Lovett’s Pie Shop at 348 Water Street on on Friday, October 12. Continues until November 1.
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