Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Set in 19th century London, with dark wit and an incredibly lush score, Sweeney Todd tells the tale of a barber who was unjustly exiled and seeks revenge against Judge Turpin, the man who falsely imprisoned him while stealing his young wife Lucy and their infant child Johanna away. Fifteen years later, when Todd returns to London, he discovers that Turpin now has plans to marry the grown-up Johanna and that Lucy was driven to suicide. With the assistance of Mrs. Lovett, the woman who runs the seedy meat pie bakeshop under the room where he used to live, Todd's thirst for blood grows. As he waits to get revenge against Turpin, Todd and Lovett find a most creative, and profitable, way to dispose of the bodies whose throats Todd has slit in his barber chair as he practices for his moment alone with the Judge.
Sondheim has said he got the idea for this show when he saw Christopher Bond's play adaptation of the classic Todd tale one evening in London and thought it could make a perfectly dark, bold, and bloody musical. His decision to include elements of Grand Guignol theater in his black comedy was a stroke of genius and the result is a masterpiece. In addition to Sondheim's powerful and lyrical score, which features repetitive themes, lush musical moments, soaring ballads, and lyrics with incredibly witty wordplay, Wheeler's book doesn't have any unnecessary moments with short scenes and just enough dialogue, which combine with the perfect lyrics to make us understand each character, and their actions, implicitly.
Director Kiel Klaphake has mounted a beautiful, atmospheric, and swift moving production with a cast more than up to the challenge of tackling one of Sondheim's most challenging scores. The characters run the gamut of emotions from joy to despair, and Klaphake's direction ensures the cast hit the right notes without ever making any of the scarier moments unintentionally humorous, something not always easy to achieve in a black comedy.
As Sweeney, Tony Edgerton is sensational. He has the right element of menace that Todd needs to exhibit in order to truly feel dangerous to the audience while also incorporating a deep sense of brooding, a calculating mindset, despair, obsession, moodiness, and also an amount of charm and humor. His pure, rich and clear voice delivers soaring notes on every song. Cassandra Klaphake is appropriately bold and brassy as Mrs. Lovett. In probably the best role I've seen her cast, Klaphake infuses Lovett with a no-nonsense, matter of fact delivery in every line of dialogue and lyric. In her portrayal, we see that this is a woman who knows what she wants and what she needs to do to get it. Klaphake's expressive eyes and warm gestures help to mask Lovett's true calculating and plotting nature. Her strong vocals deliver. Together, Edgerton and Klaphake bring a sense of joyful excitement and relish to every move they make. Their performance of the crowd-pleasing "A Little Priest," which sets up the action of act two, is one of the best and most natural versions of the song I've seen. Instead of just a song where actors hit their marks and get the lyrics right, you actually feel it is a natural progression of a conversation, from a thought Lovett has that sparks further fleshing out by Todd, as the song builds with witty lyrics until it soars to its comically delightful ending.
In the supporting cast, Ryan Michael Crimmins does very well as Anthony, the young sailor who is enamored with Sweeney's daughter Johanna, and Trisha Hart Ditsworth's portrayal of Johanna is clear and strong. Their vocals are bright, lively and lush. With a strong and firm sense of authority, Steve McCoy is appropriately commanding and self-righteous as the lecherous Judge Turpin, and Michael O'Brien instills Turpin's right-hand man Beadle Bamford with a light air, though you never doubt that underneath is a boding and strong threat of danger. Meggie Siegrist is excellent as the melancholy and funny half-crazed Beggar Woman. Ben Stasny is bright and cunning as Pirelli, a barber who has a run in with Todd, while Tristan Klaphake's sweet vocals and boyish charms infuse Tobias, Pirelli's assistant, with a youthful sense of curiosity. The song that Tristan shares with his mother Cassandra, as Lovett, "Not While I'm Around," about the need to protect the ones you love, takes on an even deeper meaning when sung by this real life parent and child.
Kiel Klaphake's direction makes great use of Aaron Sheckler's superb two-story set to ensure the sweeping nature of the story resonates while also allowing the more personal moments to have poignancy. Musical director James May achieves an amazing, rich and full sound from the small orchestra and strong, powerful harmonies from the cast. Sheckler's set includes a large, rotating, angular two-story structure for Todd's barber shop and Lovett's pie shop as well as two raised areas where other action takes place. When combined with Nate Wheatley's stunning lighting, full of deep shadows, bold and stark colors, and a rich depth, it creates some incredibly impressive imagery. With vibrant fabrics and deep colors, Kathleen Trott's costumes are simply excellent.
Sweeney Todd has a sophisticated and challenging score full of sweeping music and a book that includes humorous moments of black comedy to tell the moving story of a madman. Arizona Broadway Theatre's production is eerily atmospheric, gorgeous, hauntingly beautiful, and chilling with an excellent cast and solid direction that deliver extremely full, rich and rewarding performances. The end result is a deliciously tasty and satisfyingly macabre treat.
Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, through September 16, 2018, at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe St., Phoenix AZ. Tickets can be ordered at www.herbergertheater.org or by calling 602-252-8497.
Book by Hugh Wheeler
*Member, Actors' Equity Association