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ANW’s ‘Sweeney Todd’ keeps it minimal and melancholic


From left: Cassandra Marie Murphy (Mrs. Lovett) and Geoff Elliott (Sweeney Todd) in A Noise Within's "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (Photo by Craig Schwartz)

Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s musical dark-comedy “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” has continued to enthrall audiences since it opened on Broadway in 1979, winning multiple Tony Awards.

 

A Noise Within’s (ANW) rendition—continuing through March 17—keeps the staging minimal and pacing deliberate such that the taste of murder lingers in the mouth longer than the witty puns about Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies.

From left: Cassandra Marie Murphy (Mrs. Lovett) and Geoff Elliott (Sweeney Todd) in A Noise Within's "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (Photo by Craig Schwartz)

Based on Christopher Bond’s 1973 play, itself rooted in English stories from the mid-1800s, “Sweeney Todd” is a fable about a London barber falsely imprisoned for 15 years who returns to take revenge on the judge who sentenced him—and who has creepy designs on Todd’s teenaged daughter.

 

Sondheim’s music is as much a character as any of the players, creating a rhythmically lyrical yet haunting tone from beginning to end, here performed by two pianists and a cellist (orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick; music directed by Rod Bagheri). Harmonic dissonance in ensemble numbers and duets creates a melancholic atmosphere, relieved only by sweet notes of longing in songs like “Johanna” and “Pretty Women.”

Ensemble cast of A Noise Within's "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (Photo by Craig Schwartz)

The opening song has the ensemble facing the audience, inviting (or perhaps threatening) us to “attend the tale of Sweeney Todd” with morose expressions, ghoulish makeup (by Tony Valdes) and ragged costuming (by Angela Balogh Calin) that evoke the streets of Victorian-era London during “hard times.”

 

The set is minimal—an empty theatre stage on which props like ladders, chairs and a bed are wheeled in as needed. Lighting (by Ken Booth) is similarly stark at times, at one point only a yellow theatre lantern, giving the performance a backstage feel.

From left: Joanna J. Jones (Johanna), James Everts (Anthony Hope), Harrison White (Beadle Bamford) and cellist Karen Hall in A Noise Within's "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (Photo by Craig Schwartz)

We are soon introduced to Sweeney (Geoff Elliott, also ANW co-artistic director), returning from prison with a young sailor he befriended on the ship home named Anthony Hope (a warm-voiced James Everts).

 

Sweeney gravitates to his old haunt on Fleet Street and is given back his upstairs barber’s shop by Mrs. Lovett (Cassandra Marie Murphy), who sells meat pies downstairs—“the worst pies in London,” she humorously sings, owing to their meager content.

 

Elliott plays Sweeney with the bedraggled gruffness of a broken man, fixated on using his impeccably sharp barber’s tools to kill Judge Turpin (a natural Jeremy Rabb). We learn through Mrs. Lovett’s song “The Barber and His Wife” that Sweeney’s “beautiful” wife was coveted by Turpin and the reason officer Beadle Bamford (Harrison White) framed Sweeney to be sentenced by the judge.

From left: Joanna J. Jones (Johanna) and James Everts (Anthony Hope) in A Noise Within's "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (Photo by Craig Schwartz)

Meanwhile, having used and cast aside the wife, Judge Turpin kept Sweeney’s child Johanna (Joanna A. Jones) and raised her as his ward, locking her in a room with various caged birds. Only now he’s beginning to eye her creepily as she blossoms into womanhood. Fortunately, young sailor Hope also spots her through her window.

 

Events take a morbid turn as Sweeney unfortunately ends up murdering someone else in his barber’s chair first. Fortunately, though, Mrs. Lovett finds a more economical way to fill her pies and business is booming by the second act, customers clamoring for more in the song “God, That’s Good!”

Ensemble cast of A Noise Within's "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (Photo by Craig Schwartz)

Murphy sustains high energy and verve as Mrs. Lovett throughout, especially in the dreamy “By the Sea” that showcases her voice. But relatively slower pacing otherwise (as directed by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, also ANW co-artistic director) has us dwelling on Sweeney’s macabre murders—emphasized each time with red lighting and a high-pitched scream—rather than enjoying its absurdity.

 

Events perhaps inevitably conspire against Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett, but the ending feels more like a Shakespearean tragedy—like “Titus Andronicus” with its high body count (and, interestingly, cannibalism), or the Greek tragedy “Oedipus Rex” with its dramatic irony—rather than a darkly fun fable.

 

ANW dramaturg Dr. Miranda Johnson-Haddad rightly notes that the musical’s underlying themes of “social justice, moral corruption, psychological obsession, and trauma cycles” speak loudly to us today. However, ANW’s literal and stark take on “Sweeney Todd” may be more heavy-handed than entertaining, even with Sondheim’s transcendent music.  

 

“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” continues at A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena, through March 17, with performances Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets start at $34. For tickets and information, call (626) 356-3100 or visit anoisewithin.org. Run time is 2 hours and 45 minutes, including intermission.

 

 

 

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