Review: SWEENEY TODD, THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET (The Curious Voyage)

by Lynn on November 25, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

In London, England, at an undisclosed site.

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Book by Hugh Wheeler

From an adaptation by Christopher Bond

Directed by Mitchell Cushman

Musical director, Tara Litvack

Movement director, Cameron Carver

Set and props designer, Joe Pagnan

Costumes by Alice Cousins

Lighting by Lucy Adams

Cast: Jahlen Barnes

Tess Benger

AJ Bridel

Izad Etemadi

Derek Kwan

Craig Lauzon

Mike Nadajewski

Glynis Ranney

Travis Seetoo

Michael Torontow

A thrilling conclusion to a very curious voyage.

The Story. Benjamin Barker was a loving husband to his wife Lucy and a loving father to their daughter Johanna. A slimy Judge Turpin also had eyes for Lucy, so he accused Benjamin of some trumped up charge and had him transported for life to Australia. Then the judge made the moves on Lucy by inviting her to a party. She thought he might be apologizing to her but he had other dastardly plans. Lucy would be the main entertainment, unbeknownst to her. The experience drove her mad. Judge Turpin then out of guilt brought up Joanna as his ward.

Years pass and Benjamin escapes and tries to ‘sail’ to England. He is found almost dead by a passing ship where he is tended by Anthony, a sailor on the ship, who then sees that Benjamin returns to England. Benjamin changes his name to Sweeney Todd and seeks out his old shop on Fleet Street. A woman named Mrs. Lovett runs the pie shop below the barber shop. She tells Sweeney that the place is haunted because of all the goings on up there, not very nice. She tells him the story of what happened and that Lucy was dead. Sweeney’s distraught reaction makes her realize that Benjamin Barker and Sweeney Todd are the same fellah. She even kept his old razors. Sweeney was going back in the barber business in order to get his revenge on the judge by slitting his throat, after giving him a ‘close’ shave. But first he needed to practice. The bodies pile up. What to do with them? Mrs. Lovett, ever resourceful, figures all that meat should not go to waste. If you get my meaning.

 The Production. (From the end of the post of day three of the Curious Voyage): “Then back out of the venue, along the canal, trying not to get killed by the cyclists who whizzed by (no I don’t think they were part of the narrative.) We went up another deserted street with strange buildings and a ramen restaurant along the way. We stopped at a derelict building, went down the stairs into the gloom of the place; forbidding, dark, murky lighting, no windows. wonderfully claustrophobic.  I made out characters frozen in a pose, in costumes from a different time. We sat on a bench around two sides of the space. There in a corner was a woman in front of an electric keyboard, a man with a cello and a woman with a violin. The lights dimmed to dark. There was a piercing whistle sound and the first urgent chords of the musical, and I did what I always do when I hear the beginning of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, I burst into tears.”

The characters who are posed came to life as the first chords of Stephen Sondheim’s beautiful score were played. “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” sets the tone and atmosphere for the show. “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd. His skin was pale and his eye was odd. He shaved the faces of gentlemen, who never thereafter were heard of again.”

That about says it for a set up that makes you sit up and flinch. The music builds, gets more intense, more urgent until the Lucy Adams’s stark lighting goes up on the last character to move—Sweeney Todd, played by a gripping, hollow-eyed Michael Torontow. At this point Sweeney is blazing with the idea of revenge. At this point he feels that London is a place that is ‘full of people who are full of shit.” Cruel, mean, sordid—that’s London to Sweeney. There is an old beggar woman (a crazed, sexually explicit Tess Benger with moments of lucidity) who keeps bedevilling him and he keeps pushing her aside. As lurid as she is she seems to think she knows him. He has no use for such bother; he has a task to be done.

The tight-smiling, always calculating Mrs. Lovett, played by Glynis Ranney with verve and a look that keeps people wary, stakes her claim on Sweeney and won’t let him go. She strokes his anger but keeps him in check. It’s a masterful performance and Ranney sings like a dream too.  There is a spark between them. She is desperate to charm him. He is desperate to get Judge Turpin. But there are times when Lovett gives Sweeney a reason for living (what to do with all that meat)

Sweeney’s nemesis is Judge Turpin who is played with oily formidable confidence by Mike Nadajewski. This is a character that is twisted with desire for his ward, Joanna, (a wonderful twittery AJ Bridel)  but also guilt ridden because of it. I don’t get the sense he is guilt ridden by his past transgressions. Nadajewski sings with power and fearlessness.

The entire cast is strong and every single one of them does this production proud.

The multi-leveled set and the props were designed by the always inventive Joe Pagnan. This being an immersive production, director Mitchell Cushman ensures the audience followed the action up stairs to the second level where Sweeney’s barber shop is—the chair is simple; where Mrs. Lovett’s kitchen is (a working faucet, simple chairs), where she makes her meat pies; where the charlatan Pirelli (a glistening-eyed Izad Etemadi) tries to dupe Sweeney; then downstairs to follow Tobias (an innocent, possessive Jahlen Barnes) as he sings and waits in the smoke house. Upstairs the Beadle (a beautifully voiced Derek Kwan), the Judge’s henchman, comes to see what the stink is from the bakehouse. Matters ramp up quickly from there. Anthony (a sweet and trusting Travis Seeto) has fallen in love with Judge Turpin’s ward (and Sweeney’s daughter) and wants to run off with her. But first he has to dupe Fogg (played with delicious evil by Craig Lauzon) who runs the madhouse where Johanna is held prisoner.

Mitchell Cushman has directed a brisk, atmospheric production. Scenes are done in silhouette. The rape of Lucy by the Judge is both hideously vicious and gracefully balletic (he is on his knees and then lowered down by the other revellers over a prone Lucy, then raised up and lowered down.)

Sweeney kills the old beggar woman who came upon him when he was preparing for the Judge. (this is not a spoiler alert—the musical has been around the decades and everybody knows the story). But then he looks at her closely and realizes what he’s done. How many times have I seen that scene? How many ways can you say “Oh no!” (shouted in heartache, whispered in despair and disbelief, mouthed silently, and every single time I burst into tears. The final horror of a musical full of people living in horrible times.

All through the Curious Voyage we had to find a person who may or may not be in the show (he was, it was Anthony) and in a way Anthony offers a through line after the musical—how does he survive after? Does he now also believe that “London is a city full of people who are full of shit?” Possible. I’m not sure that conceit works, but it was interesting for the three day Curious Voyage narrative.

Comment. It’s interesting to see how the three days of the Curious Voyage, the encounters, the challenges to our moral thinking, questions about good and evil, whether we could kill anyone or not, all culminated in this musical that asks all those questions. One wonders if any of the people on our voyage was/is a Sweeney Todd, how can we tell, should we look harder at people we pass in the street?

The whole experience was terrific. I loved looking back and tracking the clues we gathered in Barrie, Ontario and London, England and then applying them to Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

There are plans afoot to do the Curious Voyage again in the future,  but this time in Barrie, Ontario and Toronto. It will culminate in a musical, but as Arkady Spivak, the whip smart Artistic Producer of Talk is Free Theatre never repeats himself, don’t assume he will be doing Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street again. I can hardly wait for his new scheme.

Presented by Talk is Free Theatre

Closed, gone but not forgotten, ever.

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