Sweeney avoids piety, bakes up bloody treats

by Beacon Staff • October 31, 2007

Few composers can manage to make a truly terrifying tale out of a usually harmless occupation: a barber. In Stephen Sondheim's musical Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, however, that very premise is exploited into a macabre rendering of London's seedy underbelly and the madness that dwells within it.

The story begins in London with the arrival of the titular barber, whose troubled past is revealed after his encounter with an old acquaintance, Mrs. Lovett.

Years ago, a barber by the name of Benjamin Barker was sent away to rot in jail on a trumped-up charge so that a notorious Judge Turpin could get his hands on Barker's wife and daughter. That barber is Sweeney Todd, and upon hearing that his wife is dead and his daughter Johanna has been stolen, he plans to exact revenge on the perpetrators of the crime.

In the process, he kills Pirelli, his competition in barberism. Mrs. Lovett convinces Sweeney to dispose of the body in a most unorthodox method: through the pies she bakes in her shop. Her flippant rationale? "I mean, with the price of meat what it is, when you get it, if you get it..."

Sondheim has composed some truly beautiful music and heart-wrenching lyrics for Sweeney Todd, especially the songs "Johanna," sung by the enamored sailor Anthony, and the sweet aria-like "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" in which Sweeney Todd's lost daughter yearns for freedom. Other songs, however, are jarring and harsh-especially the often-reprised "Ballad of Sweeney Todd"-and do not seem to fit in with the softer ballads.

There is an eerie dissonance between the upbeat lyrics in the song "By the Sea," where Mrs. Lovett dreams of her marriage to Sweeney, and the life they could have, amid cleaning the various tools she just used to dismember his victims with a giddy smile.

Sweeney's London is a place in which even simplest things have a violent context and ordinary acts become exceedingly gruesome. No character is spared and everyone could be assumed the villain by the end of the play, as they all have blood on their hands. Even the love song Anthony serenades Johanna with has lyrics like "I feel you, Johanna! And one day I'll steal you."

Broadway Across America's Boston production of Sweeney Todd is blessed with a fascinating premise, one which is never explicitly mentioned but implied through the costumes and set. The characters are all inmates in a mad house, who are apparently performing this play for the audience. Some characters are dressed in lab coats and some in tattered outfits of mostly grey or black.

When director John Doyle originally staged this version of Sweeney Todd at a small London theater, he downsized out of necessity, making the set as spare as possible and consolidating the cast and the orchestra into ten people. That is to say, the same ten actors played all the required instruments, streamlining the originally grand envisioning of Sweeney into something sparse and infinitely more intimate.

In this production, the instruments became props, and began to represent facets of their characters. The music itself is more alive because of its visual presence on stage. Mrs. Lovett plays the tuba and the triangle, Johanna the cello and Sweeney the trumpet, to name a few.

Mrs. Lovett (elegantly played by Judy Kaye) is at her best during her most diabolical moments, as she manipulates Sweeney into fulfilling his bloody desires. She has the comedic timing to transform Sweeney Todd's darker moments into pure, wicked wit, and the necessary bravado to hold her own against Sweeney in perversity.

David Hess, in his portrayal of the titular barber, makes up for his hoarse singing by interpretating the throat-slashing madman with perfect accuracy. His madness is believable and almost understandable as he lives in torment, taking pleasure only in knowing that he will somehow exact his revenge.

Lauren Molina, who plays Johanna, has a delicate, beautiful voice and an ethereal quality that renders her performance delightful. Her counterpart, Anthony (played by Benjamin Magnuson), is simultaneously the charming hero and the lustful sailor, who will go to any lengths to secure Johanna as his bride.

Johanna's foster father and Sweeney's arch-enemy, Judge Turpin (played by Keith Buterbaugh) is convincingly dastardly, especially as he lusts after his own adopted child. And not to be missed is the sweet voice of Tobias, (Edmund Bagnell), the earnest boy who comes to work for Mrs. Lovett.

This performance is an interesting interpretation of an illustrious work, though at points the music seems somewhat cobbled together and could have been more smoothly formatted. However, the multi-talented cast compensates for any small musical mistakes in this truly insightful re-construction of Sweeney's original format. By the end of the play, it is hard to tell what is more real: Sweeney's world, or the madhouse where its characters reside.

Sweeney Todd will be playing at the Colonial Theater until November 4.