Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
It’s a thrilling thing to write, because the occasion happens so rarely, but if you want to witness a genuine, star-in-the-making performance, call Level Ground Arts for your ticket to their current production of Stephen Sondheim’s murderous nightmare, "Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" and witness the rising star of Monica Music playing the role of Johanna, Todd’s daughter.
The beautiful Music has a very bright and mature stage presence and when she sings the cheerfully yet sorrowful "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" with its high octave and heavily syncopated phrasing, she is nothing short of stunning. Music is a 14-year-old sophomore at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. We anticipate and look forward to many years of enjoying Music’s performances.
Level Ground Arts’ "Sweeney Todd" is bold and intimate; it’s good theater with occasional glimpses of elements that could have made it great theater.
"Sweeney Todd" is the story of Benjamin Barker, a young, naïve barber with a newborn daughter and a beautiful wife who is coveted by the malicious Judge Turpin. Barker is brought before Turpin on trumped-up charges and transported to Australia.
Fifteen years later, Barker, now Sweeney Todd, returns to London and makes his way to the Meat Pie Shop of Mrs. Lovett. Recognizing Barker, Mrs. Lovett tells Sweeney his wife poisoned herself after being raped by Turpin and that his daughter, Johanna is now Turpin’s ward.
As Sweeney plots his revenge against Turpin, an old apprentice of his, Pirelli, recognizes Sweeney. When he attempts to blackmail Sweeney, Sweeney slits Pirelli’s throat with his silver razors. The resourceful Mrs. Lovett recognizes an opportunity and serves up Pirelli in her meat pies. Impatient for his revenge against Turpin, Sweeney succumbs to madness, declaring that "they all deserve to die" and starts practicing his craft on unsuspecting customers providing a boom in business for Mrs. Lovett.
It takes a few scenes for Shane Strawbridge to settle in as Todd but when he does he gives us a mad, hollow, broken Todd with a full, rich voice that truly comes alive during "My Friends" when he serenades his gleaming silver razors like a long lost lover. Strawbridge’s performance is consistently intense.
More polarizing is Andi Allen as the cannibalistic baker Mrs. Lovett. Many Sondheim songs, especially those written for rich characters in shows like "Sweeney" don’t necessarily require perfect pitch to make them effective. What the songs do require is the full emotional breadth and width behind the words. Allen is successful in this manner with her songs; they aren’t perfectly sung but their intent is perfectly clear.
Artists performing Sondheim characters also must have an acting arsenal full of tones, looks and nuances. A Sondheim character can, with a look, say as much as a character from another show could in several sentences. Ms. Allen is at her most uneven here. She is spot on when she nearly wordlessly explains to Todd how the remains of his ’hobby’ can help supply fresh meat for her pies.
But late in the second act, Tobey, the young lad who helps her in her shop serenades Mrs. Lovett by declaring "No One’s Going To Harm You." Knowing that Tobey’s suspicions about Todd will lead to his demise, her response reprise of "No One’s Going To Harm You" should be filled with pathos, shame and sorrow. Ms. Allen disappoints here, as she gives us nothing.
Randall Scott Carpenter is terrific as the doomed Tobey, who thinks he has been rescued from a cruel master by the loving Mrs. Lovett only to discover things aren’t quite what they seem. He sings the above-mentioned "No One’s Going to Harm You" with love, conviction and duty.
Max Swarner is fantastic, as usual, playing the sailor Anthony, the love interest for Johanna. Is it possible the talented Swarner is actually getting better with each role he is cast in? Swarner’s performance, both his acting and his singing (especially in the beautifully haunted "Johanna") is his most mature to date.
Michael B. Moore needs to rein back and give us less as Pirelli, the rival barber who recognizes and attempts to blackmail Todd. Moore’s bio states that this production is his third turn as Pirelli. The third time is not the charm for Moore. He needs more direction as his performance is pure camp.
Director John de los Santos pulls riveting performances out of Strawbridge, Carpenter, Swarner and Music and seems full of ideas he wants to experiment with. Seemingly to create more performance space in the tiny KD Studio Theater, de los Santos (who also doubles as Set Designer) uses a series of tables which are rearranged between each number providing different layers and levels for his performers.
It’s a great idea in concept, but is awkward, clunky, noisy and distracting in execution. Additionally, besides all the main principals, de los Santos fills the small performance area with an ensemble of 12. Is this large ensemble form or function? The opening lines of the show are, "Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd..." implying a storyteller and an audience. Is the claustrophobic ensemble the listeners of the story? Or are they there merely to keep the set of tables rotating?
Finally, and always, there’s Stephen Sondheim’s score (lightly directed by Adam C Wright in a three-piece ensemble) that long ago accomplished the unthinkable: providing iconic music and lyrics that are now inseparable from the tale of Sweeney itself. Each note, bar and phrase oozes with drama and anticipation.
Sondheim cruelly juxtaposes the two most melodic songs ("Pretty Women" and "Johanna") with the most violent on-stage acts. The riveting one-two punch "Epiphany" and "A Little Priest" at the end of Act I remains one of theater’s most emotional and disturbing knockouts.
Having lost the opportunity to his exact his revenge on Judge Turpin, Sweeney’s last thread of sanity is severed in "Epiphany" where he surrenders to his madness roaring, "We all deserve to die!" Mrs. Lovett’s enterprising schemes provide the knockout punch in "A Little Priest," the most provocatively hilarious song ever to be written about murder and cannibalism.
"Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" runs through September 1 at Trinity Rivers Arts Theatre (KD Studio Theatre), 2600 N Stemmons Freeway, Dallas. For info or tickets visit http://www.levelgroundarts.com