by Lynn on June 14, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Neighbourhood Food Hub, 1470 Gerrard St. E, Toronto, Ont. until July 3, 2022 produced by Talk Is Free Theatre.

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Book by Hugh Wheeler

From an adaptation by Christopher Bond

Directed by Mitchell Cushman

Musical director, Dan Rutzen

Choreographer, Cameron Carver

Set and properties by Kathleen Black

Lighting by Nick Blais

Costumes by Laura Delchiaro

Cast: Noah Beemer

Tess Benger

Joel Cumber

Gabi Epstein

Griffin Hewitt

Cyrus Lane

Jeff Lillico

Andrew Prashad

Glynis Ranney

Michael Torontow

Musicians: Samuel Bisson

Gemma Donn

Stephan Ermel

Dan Rutzen

Thrilling. Every single second of this dark, haunting musical is realized in Mitchell Cushman’s deeply imagined direction. The cast is sublime.

Background. In 2018, Arkady Spivak, the hugely creative (then) artistic producer of Talk Is Free Theatre, got the wild idea of ‘A Curious Voyage’, in which a group of adventurous people would sign on for a three-day adventure. The first day took place in Barrie, Ont. where the adventurous participants engaged in immersive role-playing and observing various theatrical activities. On the second day, first thing in the morning, the group got on a plane to London, England, landing at night, where a few more theatrical endeavors unfolded. On the third day the group engaged in various encounters with ‘strangers’ on the London streets. The day culminated with the group being taken to an abandoned building down an alley-way where they watched an immersive production of Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street directed by Mitchell Cushman and starring a stellar Canadian cast engaged for this special occasion. Then the next day, the adventurous people flew home to Canada.  

This Toronto engagement of Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street ‘only’ involves the production of this celebrated musical, but it is every bit as thrilling and inventive as that Curious Voyage in 2018.

The Story. It’s 1846, London, England. Anthony Hope has rescued Sweeney Todd at sea and brought him to London. Todd escaped from a prison in Australia where he had been sent by an unscrupulous judge, Judge Turpin, based in London. We learn that Judge Turpin coveted Sweeney’s wife Lucy and created a phony charge to get Sweeney out of the way so Judge Turpin could make the moves on Lucy.

Sweeney returns to his old digs in Fleet Street—he was a barber in his previous life and he was named Benjamin Barker—hoping to resume his life with his wife and their young daughter, Johanna, and get revenge on Turpin. The barber shop is above Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop and Mrs. Lovett tells him, that alas, Lucy is dead. Johanna, now a young woman, is the ward of Judge Turpin. This sends Sweeney Todd into a vengeful frenzy. Mrs. Lovett recognizes that Sweeney Todd is in fact Benjamin Barker. She says that his barber shop is exactly as it was, and she saved his precious razors. And that is the beginning of his vengeful journey.

The Production. Director Mitchell Cushman didn’t revise his previous “Curious Voyage” production of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street for the Neighbourhood Food Hub location on Gerrard St. E. He completely rethought every second of the production to illuminate this haunting, moving musical of revenge and regret. And Cushman also reimagined how he would have the cast utilize every part of the multi-level space. The Neighbourhood Food Hub is also a working church. At times the audience sits in the pews, on the dais, stands on the stairs going up to another level, scurries to the basement etc. Accommodation is made for those with ambulatory issues, but one must be aware that this is an immersive production in which we follow characters all over the building, sometimes quickly.

Mitchell Cushman makes us aware and watchful of everything. So that silent man (Ensemble—Joel Cumber) sitting on the steps of the Neighbourhood Food Hub, wearing torn jeans, a worn jean jacket and toque, playing the ukulele, should not be overlooked as one might a homeless person. He follows the audience around, standing on the edges, watchful of everything that unfolds. Is he humanity? Kindness? You decide.

When we enter the church sanctuary and sit in the designated pews, we note that standing in other pews are various characters in costumes of 1846, looking crazed and haunted, eyes rimmed in black shadow, lipstick askew, hair disheveled. Every face indicates the cares of that hard world.

Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” establishes the world we are about to enter and who is at the centre of it. And just as suddenly Sweeney Todd (Michael Torontow) appears, hollow-eyed, vengeful and compelling. Michael Torontow gives a performance of such relentless drive, such all consuming rage as Sweeney that it is nothing less than explosive. And yet your heart breaks for him. The proximity to such a performance is gripping. Every single character locks eyes with the audience and doesn’t let up or let us look way. We are constantly drawn into the darkness and humour of the story because of the closeness to the company.

There is so much invention in scene after scene of Mitchell Cushman’s direction it is tempting to fill a whole review with reference to scene after glorious scene. That’s not fair to future audiences—and of course the point of any review is to get people to go see the production. So here are only a few scenes that stood out in a production brimming with them. Cushman and his lighting designer, Nick Blais make wonderful use of shadow, light and silhouette. Many scenes in silhouette happen behind a white sheet. We see the interplay of characters behind the sheet. The most vivid is Judge Turpin (a charming, dangerous Cyrus Lane, who tries to whip out his lascivious thoughts about Johanna, by self-flagellation) reaching out in shadow, and elegantly moving Sweeney Todd out of the way so that the Judge can move in closer to Lucy. Simple, gut-squeezing, and effective.

Sweeney lives in a time of moral decay. People live by their wits. Sweeney begins his life of murder in practice for when he can get Judge Turpin in his barber chair to give him the closest shave he’s ever had. What to do with these ‘bodies’. Hmm. Mrs. Lovett (Glynis Ranney) is struggling in her increase her meat pie business. Hmmm? Aha!!! One does what one can, if you get my drift. Glynis Ranney plays Mrs. Lovett in a way that is so beguiling and frightening that you are left limp in your seat at the ease of duplicity. She sings “A Little Priest” with Michael Torontow as Sweeney that has a hint of joy between these two characters as they differentiate between meat pies considering ‘who’ represents the filling.  

Getting rid of the bodies as Sweeney gives shave after shave to unsuspecting customers is again bristling with imagination and elegance because of Mitchell Cushman’s creative effectiveness. It’s almost balletic with a touch of weightlifting.

The cast is sublime. And while it’s so pedestrian to just list the actor and their character, to do so with a total description would take up too much of your time, when you should be just getting a ticket. Gabi Epstein is a crazed and mysterious Beggar Woman who has obviously seen and experienced something that has changed her life. You won’t soon forget her haunted eyes. Jeff Lillico as Pirelli is arrogant, humourous and not who he seems. Griffin Hewitt as Anthony Hope is a man consumed with love for Johanna and desperate to have her in his life. As Johanna, Tess Benger is beguiling, ‘innocent’ and yet knowing. Noah Beemer as Tobias Ragg is a young man who would do anything to protect Mrs. Lovett. He is eager, loving, sweet and perhaps fragile minded with what he too has endured. And Andrew Prashad is a very proud Beadle, knows the power of his position and how to use it. Every one of these actors sings beautifully, in a strong, compelling voice. Each one invests 100% into illuminating their troubled, mesmerizing characters. It’s to their great credit and their gifted director that even when we think someone is a villain, there is such nuance and shading that we aren’t sure.    

Comment. Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street is one of Stephen Sondheim’s darkest, most compelling musicals. It’s about those troubled people we pass on the street without ‘seeing’ them. What Mitchell Cushman and his gifted cast have done in this glorious production is make us look, consider and pay attention.

Talk Is Free Theatre presents:

Running until: July 3, 2022.

Running Time: 3 hours, 30 minutes, approx. (1 intermission)

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1 Lynn June 15, 2022 at 6:52 pm