REVIEW: Sweeney Todd

Four for four.

I saw four productions last week.  All four of them were named for their lead character, in a bit of irony.  And SWEENEY TODD, the only musical of the bunch, is perhaps the most well-known (at least in theatre geekdom.)  It’s also considered by many to be the most difficult musical score to perform.

Human Race Theatre must have known that.  They cast some incredible talent to play the principals.  All of them, apart from Jamie Cordes, a professor at Wright State University and resident company member for Human Race, who plays Sweeney are from New York or LA.

Cordes sings the role very well, which makes sense given that he teaches voice at Wright State to the very talented student body.  But Sweeney needs more than a good voice.  The lack of British accent for the character is jarring, especially since Todd is the only one without one. Worse yet is that this Todd is just too nice.  We don’t fear the “demon barber” the way we ought nor are we ever really captivated by his presence.

But the show still works, completely due to the magnificent cast.  “Mrs. Lovett” (Rebecca Watson), “Judge Turpin” (David MacDonald), “Tobias Ragg” (DJ Plunkett), “Pirelli” (Craig McEldowney), “Beadle” (Aaron Vega), “Anthony” (Zack Steele), and “Johanna” (Kimberly Hessler) all more than carry the load to tell this layered and complicated story about the events that happen on Fleet Street.

For those unfamiliar with the story, here’s a recap (and skip this paragraph if you don’t want spoilers):  Sweeney Todd has arrived on Fleet Street looking for revenge.  Formerly known as Benjamin Barker, his wife, Lucy, was stolen by the evil Judge Turpin, who did unspeakable things to her after banishing Barker to prison on trumped-up charges.  Talk about an abuse of power!  Turpin then took charge of the Barker’s baby, Johanna, and has locked her in a room. She has grown into a gorgeous young lady and he now plans to marry her.  Anthony, a sailor who saved Todd from drowning notices Johanna and pursues her, making an enemy out of Turpin and his loyal associate, The Beadle.  Meanwhile, Todd sets up a barber shop above Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop as he bides his time before he can kill Turpin and rescue his daughter.  A shaman named Pirelli shows up and threatens to blackmail Sweeney, but Todd eliminates that threat.  He and Lovett come up with a brilliant plan to dispose of the body and increase meat pie sales.  Tobias, Pirelli’s young pitchman, is now without a master so Mrs. Lovett takes him in.  But Tobias becomes skeptical of Todd and poses a threat to Lovett’s new lifestyle.  Things unravel from there as the plot comes to a head in the climax.

The storytelling in this production is clear and well-done.

Let’s talk about this cast.  Watson is full-on Cockney; her Mrs. Lovett is hilarious and heart-breaking all at the same time.  Her chemistry with Toby during the show stopping number “Not While I’m Around” brought me to tears.  DJ Plunkett, a graduate of CCM, plays Toby as quirky, twisted, and is ultimately the most sympathetic character in the show.  We see how his arc develops with professional clarity. And his vocals are impeccable.

So are those of Zack Steele, a Wright State graduate.  The sweetness with which he sings “Johanna” lulls the audience into hope that maybe this sailor might be able to rescue his “princess in the tower.”  Director Scott Stoney has made use of every available inch of space in the shallow Loft Theatre.  Johanna is locked in a room in the home of the evil Judge Turpin, which is up behind house-left at the top of the risers.  Kimberly Hessler, a gorgeous soprano, evokes the right notes musically and also with her characterization of this innocent and desperate young woman.

Judge Turpin is one of musical theatre’s greatest villains and when portrayed correctly he is scary, despicable, and without redemption.  MacDonald, a veteran of Broadway, is so good that an oft-deleted scene where he whips himself while he lusts after his ward, Johanna, is in play here.  It’s disturbing, creepy, and MacDonald performs with vigor and commitment.

The rest of the Ensemble, which includes Scott Hunt in a very interesting turn as Mr. Fogg, the keeper of the Asylum.  Christine Zavakos plays The Beggar Woman, who has a secret of her own.  Aaron Vega is infinitely watchable as The Beadle, making fun choices throughout his performance.  There’s Drew Helton, Cassi Mikat, Gina Handy, Nathan Robert Pecchia, David Shough, Sherri Sutter, and Kandis Wean all providing great vocals and texture to this stage.

The choreography from Tracy Bonner is simple, but precise.  A scene outside the pie shop with a crowd of hungry customers demonstrates her talent well.  The musical direction by Sean Michael Flowers is solid, especially when you consider that the actors cannot see him conducting because of the location of his orchestra.  The set, costumes, and props, which I previewed earlier in another article, are of professional quality and keep things interesting.  And the lighting design is full of lush effects and allows the director to fully use the entire room while drawing attention to the right moments are just the right times.

SWEENEY TODD is a dark musical, perfect for this time of year as we head into the Halloween season.  Be prepared to be entertained, a little creeped out, and sometimes blown away by elements of this production.  I was mesmerized by most of the performances.

SWEENEY TODD runs through October 2nd at Human Race Theatre in downtown Dayton.  Click here for more information.  Be advised that at least on the Sunday matinee, the theatre was very cold. In fact, it was so cold that my friend wondered aloud if the fog was fog or just the breath of the audience prior to the show.  Bring a sweater just in case.