Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
"Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.
That the soloist dips his hand in a bucket and removes it dripping in red further alerts the audience that this production of Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and Hugh Wheeler's (book) 1979, eight Tony winning Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is going is to be particularly stark, dark, and bleak. The Stage takes this Sondheim favorite that has graced Broadway three times, the West End four, and grand opera stages in at least ten countries worldwide and strips the musical down to a bare minimum of cast, set, and orchestra, putting it in a time that could be now, fifty years ago, or fifty years from now. The result is to over-expose the musical's bloody, raw, and troubling tale where inherent humor found by other productions is minimized and where the clanging of metal, the slamming of coffin-like boxes, and the discordant screeching of chorus voices become notes as important in conveying the story as any sung beautifully and artfully by the individual actors.
From the moment he steps off the boat (actually a small, flat-bed cart, begrudgingly pushed along by a ruffian), Noel Antony's depiction of Sweeney Todd makes its mark as a man brimming with pent-up ragea man with only one thought, which has been brewing during his fifteen months of forced exile: Revenge. His deep-set, black-encased eyes seethe with a glare almost as red as the blood he will eventually draw from victims who dare to sit in his barber chair and feel the skilled blade of his razor on their cheeksand then necks. Banished as a barber who was known then as Benjamin Barker by a crooked Judge Turpin who coveted his wife, Todd/Barker now returns to sing in a voice full of seething anger but with still a calm resolve:
"There's a hole in the world
Noel Anthony takes his rightful place among many more famous than he as a Todd to recoil from, to relish his every snarl and venomous stare, and to remember in dream and nightmare. He brings a commanding voice that can both bellow in its choler and whisper in its sad memory of a wife lost and a one-year-old daughter left behind who now lives as the ward of the wicked Judge Turpin.
Sweeney finds himself in one of the worst parts of London at the counter of what is definitely the worst meat pie shop in Londonsomething a roller pin slamming Mrs. Lovett readily admits in a rambling, rhyming self-introduction to Todd ("The Worst Pies in London"). The Stage's most called upon actor, Allison F. Rich, steps once again into a leading role for the company to take on the woman made iconic by the likes of Angela Lansbury, Patti LuPone, and Emma Thompson. She does so with an interpretation dominated by eyes that explode with their enormously black-and-white expression; a mouth that moves into a hundred different, red-lipped forms; and a voice that hurls insults, smacks of cynicism, and yet can also be syrupy sweet and sultrily seductive. Those last, sexy ploys of her vocals are saved as she increasingly has eyes for Todd as a potential husband, and she envisions that they can live forever down "By the Sea."
Soon after Todd arrives at her shop, she offers the ex-barberwhom she quickly recognizes as the banished Barkerhis former set of cherished razors which she has saved all these years. Todd greets the shining blades as "my old friends" in a bone-chilling voice that leaves hairs on one's neck standing at attention. He is offered a room to rent above the pie shop to reopen his barbershop, with a plan to slit the throats of those who caused his and his family's demise.
In one of the funnier moments of the musical, Mrs. Lovett and he realize that the resulting dead bodies are meat not to be wasted in a town where the meat in pies is often cat or rat. Their "ah-ha" leads to act one's crowd-pleasing, finale number ("A Little Priest") where the two gustily, raucously sing of pies containing fried friars, too-salty marines, politicians so oily they run, and piccolo player pies who are piping hot. Together, Noel Anthony and Allison Rich combine for a Todd/Lovett pairing that strikes its own path of merit with interpretations wickedly funny, horrifyingly stunning, and ever-more demonizing.
The rest of this ten-person cast each plays both a singular, primary character of the story as well as various and sordid parts as invented by director Kenneth Kelleher, such as street people who often are present sulking in dark corners, sleeping under metal encasements, or staring blankly ahead in a streetlight's spot. They also combine in Sondheim's score to act throughout as a Greek-like chorus, giving their rhymed commentaries in lyrics often fired as rapidly as bullets. In these moments, this production particularly shines as their voices combine in shrill, piercing, strident harmonies in unsettling numbers like "City on Fire."
Individually, several in this cast are as stellar in their particular portrayals as the two leads. As Judge Turpin, Christopher Vettel's striking bass voice has a nauseous effect as he sings of "Johanna," the ward that he has treated as a daughter and now intends to marry. When he joins Sweeney in a duet of "Pretty Women," the effect sends shudders down one's spine, as Sweeney's raised blade stands ready to make the song a trio.
The Judge's enabler in his crimes is a street cop known as The Beadle, deliciously and slimily played by Branden Noel Thomas, who brings a voice deeply rich that can quickly rise to a fabulous falsetto. He also habitually walks around holding his right hand slightly bent at the end of a side-extended arm, suggesting an air of suspect swish for a man who clearly has a raised-nose, aristocratic opinion of himself that more rightly belongs to a duke or earl.
A fellow boat traveler with Todd as he made his way to London is Anthony Hope, whose last name says everything about the angelic look of wonder, good-naturedness, and optimism that Sam Faustine brings to the role. He also brings perhaps the best voice among many fine ones as his tenor reigns supreme in his own version of "Johanna," a number he sings after he spots the Judge's ward, and Todd's daughter, played by Monique Hafen in her window, immediately, of course, falling in love with her. His quest for her hand becomes a parallel love story to the one Mrs. Lovett wants to occur with Sweeney, with many complications arising as the Judge quickly becomes aware of their mutual attraction. Mr. Faustine brings palpable intensity, sincerity, and genuineness that are only surpassed by his lovely, lyrical voice.
There is nothing lyrical about the vocals Jill Miller is called to sing as Beggar Woman, but she too is stellar in her every jerky move, shriek and scream, and spine-chilling sung note. This Beggar Woman is a Cassandra who sees what others are ignoring, who knows much more than others can imagine, and who plays a key part in the tale's climactic, tragic ending that would rival any Shakespearean tragedy with the number of dead bodies accumulated.
Also playing a big part in the tale turning into an even darker, sadder story is the role of Tobias Ragg, a simpleminded but sweet boy who helps out in the pie shop and believes no one is nicer than the Mrs. Lovett, who knits him a scarf and treats him almost like a son. When Keith Pinto worriedly sings in a near-boy's voice, "Nothing's gonna harm you, not while I'm around" to Mrs. Lovett, he too clearly seems to sense impending disasters that the pie lady is totally ignoring in her blind adoration of the barbarous Todd.
While the starkness of this production has its merits in conveying the tale that is based on a Victorian, serialized "penny dreadful" entitled "The String of Pearls," the choices director, scenic designer (Michael Palumbo), and properties designer (Joanna Hobbs) make sometimes have the unintended effect of making the story confusing for the first-time viewer and at other times, diminish the humor that Sondheim and Wheeler so deftly include. Missing in this simple, floor-level set is the upper-level, rented room where split-throated bodies usually slide down a chute from Todd's specially designed barber chair, to be hauled away to some fiery end in a smoking furnace normally part of the overall scenic design. The method that the repeated demises of both the innocent and the wicked occur in this production is usually only symbolic, carried out on headless, white torsos one might find in a Greek antiquities shop, with remains hauled and dumped loudly into a garbage can. There is also is no furnace or smoke plume seen. My accompanying theatergoer, a Sweeney novice, was totally confused at times about what was actually happening.
Similarly, one of the funniest parts of the musical normally occurs when Todd and a sideshow huckster of hair-growing tonic have a "shave-off" to see who is the better barber. As Adolpho Pirelli, Ric Iverson has all the exaggerated Italian accents and airs fit for a small-town opera star that make him hilarious, but what he and Todd are missing in this production that would bring many more laughs are real, wide-eyed victims in their barber chairs. Here, the headless torsos again substitute and make the scene frankly only partially successful.
But, having made these observations, I must overall applaud director Kenneth Kelleher and The Stage for taking some daring risks in divorcing this musical that is more opera-like than not from its usual, big-stage, big-set renderings. The stripping away allows in many ways the dark side to become all the darker and the voices themselves to bear the brunt of telling the tale of Sweeney Todd. Certainly The Stage's production takes its own unique spot among the massive library of global productions of this Sondheim masterpiece, and local audiences would be remiss not to fill the seats of the intimate theatre to see the story once again unfold, drip by bloody drip.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, through March 18, 2018 at The Stage, 490 First Street, San Jose CA. Tickets are available at www.thestage.org.