(photo by Jordan Kubat)
Written by Scotty Keister
Chinese proverb: He who seeks revenge should remember to dig two graves.
The legend of Sweeney Todd is a long and storied one. Todd began life in the mid-19th century in a penny dreadful tale. In this original version Todd was a secondary character. He soon came to life in a stage version penned by George Dibdin Pitt. His legend continued throughout the 20th century in dozens of stage, film and television versions. Ultimately, when British playwright Christopher Bond created Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street in 1973, new life was breathed into Sweeney’s aging, bloodthirsty barber. The tale was fleshed out, making the story into more of a revenge tragedy, and not simply a bloody horror tale. This is the version that first brought Sweeney to Stephen Sondheim’s attention and led to him creating what might be considered the ultimate edition in 1979.
No wonder it seems like Sweeney has been with us forever because he’s been around for over one hundred-fifty years. All this is to say there are unlimited ways of telling the story of Sweeney and his partner in crime, Mrs. Lovett. For many years, Sondheim’s Broadway production, as directed by Harold Prince with book by Hugh Wheeler, was the only one anybody knew. It was a fully fleshed-out Broadway extravaganza, complete with split-level sets, trap doors, flashy blood effects and full orchestra. Then John Doyle came along in 2005 and put a fresh minimalist take on the show by having the cast also function as the orchestra. He used virtually no sets and only one prop: a large black coffin, which served many functions throughout the show. It was an ingenious interpretation that completely re-thought the show and raised the bar for all who came after.
The current version, now running at South Coast Repertory, takes yet another look at Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a Musical Thriller. As directed by Kent Nicholson, the idea is to set the production back in the 19th century from whence the tale came. The stage is designed by John Iacovelli to look like an old theater, with its parquet-painted floor, footlights and curtain adorned with the show’s title. The cast, other than Todd and Mrs. Lovett, also double as the ensemble. There are no sets to speak of. Different locations are represented by backdrops that replicate 19th century drawings and a few bare pieces of furniture.
Nicholson successfully brings out the humor in the show. The actors interact with the front row audience in a nice comedic tough. Costumes by Melanie Watnick are colorful and look true to the period. It’s an entertaining interpretation, but I’m not sure it works as well as intended. Not to say it isn’t vastly entertaining; Sweeney is undoubtedly one of Sondheim’s best creations, and the voices of the cast are adept at singing pieces that are no walk in the park. I would think that fans of the show will be well-pleased with this production. But, does it add anything new? The attempt at historical accuracy is fun, but not necessarily an enhancement of the story.
Jamey Hood, as Mrs. Lovett, is a standout. She sings fluidly and finds all of Lovett’s funny moments. She doesn’t always show us the blind love for Todd that drives her horrendous acts, but she is a hoot to watch. David St. Louis as Todd is, in my mind, less successful. St. Louis has a wonderful baritone voice that sounded troubled by a cold in the show I saw, and maybe that threw him off, but I found his Todd one-note. St. Louis’ performance lives and breaths anger, but Todd must go beyond that. Todd is obsessed to the point of madness. St. Louis never lets us see the monster within Todd that makes him such a frightening creation. He has been driven insane, and everything that follows in the story is a result of that. Sweeney should end up as a tragic figure who unwittingly digs his own grave. The painful irony that the story begs for at the climax was missing for me.
Devin Archer, as Anthony the sailor, Juliana Hansen as his love and Todd’s daughter Johanna, Conlan Ledwith as Tobias and Robert Mammana as the evil Judge Turpin are all strong and have fine voices, but Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper as Beadle Bamford, and especially Roland Rusinek as the ill-fated barber Pirelli are top-notch with outstanding voices to match. The cast all work well together and they bring a lot of energy and fire to the show. However, the relationship between Todd and Lovett is the heart of the story, and here I just didn’t feel it. They never seemed to be more than agreeable partners in crime.
All that being said, Sondheim’s music is so strong and his lyrics so devious and clever—as performed by a small orchestra led by musical director David O and sung by this able cast—that they carry the production. There is nothing particularly new here that raises this production above the multitudes that came before, but any version of Sweeney Todd that is pulled off capably, as this one is, is worth your time. It runs through February 16.