BWW Review: SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET at Austin Theatre Project
SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET is the 1979 Tony Award winning Best Musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler which is based on Christopher Bond's 1973 play of the same name. It has enjoyed several revivals and has been presented by multiple opera companies. Set in 19th century England, the show details barber Sweeney Todd's (Joe Penrod) return to London after 15 years of exile to take revenge on the corrupt judge who banished him. He conspires with a local baker, Mrs. Lovett (Cathie Sheridan), who has a struggling pie shop below the space that becomes Todd's tonsorial parlor. The character originated in serialized Victorian popular fiction, known as "penny dreadfuls."
SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET is arguably Sondheim's masterwork. It is both musically complex and technically demanding to stage. The current production, being staged by Austin Theatre Project, is a rare opportunity to hear the complete score of the show, as it includes numbers that were either jettisoned or edited by the time the musical had reached Broadway. I can happily report that the show is beautifully sung, lead by a pair of virtuoso performances given by Penrod and Sheridan that are as fine as any you are likely to see. The problems with this production are entirely technical in nature.
The show begins with the citizens of London, acting as a Greek chorus that comments throughout the play, starting at the end to musically set up the tale the audience is about to be told. The chorus for this production has been greatly reduced. For the most part, this group is made up of performers Susannah Crowell, Dionsysus Henderson, Suzanne Orzech, Joshua Cookingham and Ben Seidman. The group all possess fine voices that belie their reduced number. I found it unfortunate, however, that choreographers Maci McFarlin and Maranda Moody, gave these actors movements that would have been more appropriate to Michael Jackson's Thriller video. These aren't zombies, folks. They're dead, yes, but they aren't zombies.
Young sailor Anthony Hope (Creighton Moench) and Sweeney Todd (Joe Penrod), dock in London, where a half-crazed Beggar Woman (Meg Steiner) sexually solicits them, appearing to briefly recognize Todd. Todd tells Anthony of his troubled past as a naive young barber, when crooked Judge Turpin (Rick Felkins) banished him in order to pursue his wife. Leaving Anthony, Todd enters the Fleet Street meat pie shop of owner Mrs. Lovett (Cathie Sheridan). When Todd asks about the empty upstairs room, she reveals that its former tenant, Benjamin Barker, was transported out of England on false charges by Turpin, who, along with his servant, Beadle Bamford (Craig McKerley), lured Barker's wife Lucy to the Judge's home and raped her. Todd's reaction to her story reveals that he is himself Benjamin Barker. Promising to keep his secret, Lovett explains that Lucy poisoned herself and that their then-infant daughter, Johanna (Sarah Zeringue), became a ward of the Judge. When Todd swears revenge on the Judge and Beadle, Mrs. Lovett presents him with his old collection of sterling silver razors, and Todd decides to take up his old profession. Later, in a crowded London marketplace, where barber Adolfo Pirelli (Ben Seidman) and his assistant, Tobias Ragg (Mike De Anda), are pitching a cure-all elixir for hair loss, Todd and Lovett arrive. Todd exposes the elixir as a fraud and challenges Pirelli to a competition, which Todd easily wins. This places Todd in the position to increase his business in the town and set upon his revenge scheme.
There are several very good performances given by this cast which works valiantly to overcome some pretty massive technical issues. In addition to the brilliant performances of Penrod and Sheridan, Sarah Zeringue and Creighton Moench sing the roles of Johanna and Anthony beautifully. I also very much enjoyed Craig McKerley's Beadle Bamford and Ben Seidman's Pirelli along with his excellent accent work.
The set, by Jim Schuler, is oddly unfinished. Actually, to be completely honest, it is what one would call "a hot mess". On one side of the stage, there is the bakehouse, which is quite lovely, replete with smoke, glowing light emanating from the oven when it is opened and a fully functioning meat grinder which appears to ooze freshly ground meat. On the other side, is the pie shop / barber shop combo which is completely unrealized. Simple solutions like a shelf could have saved some long, long crosses to fetch things that should have been readily at hand to move the action along. However, the worst of the problems is the barber chair that is delivered. This chair is, in essence, a character in the show. The lead characters sing an ode to its magnificence. When it is revealed, it is, instead, a modern beauty shop chair that is not only woefully out of place (not to mention time period) on the stage, but fails to function in a way that is absolutely essential to the central action of the play.
This problem forced director Jeff Hinkle to have to make some bold directing choices which weren't entirely successful, mainly because it reinforced the 'dead as zombies' motif from the choreography. This, however, can't be blamed on Mr. Hinkle. He had to do something. It's hard to make lemonade out of road kill.
For the most part, Jeff Hinkle's directing is quite good; however, there were some choices made that I still can't wrap my head around. Why does Sweeney keep cutting the throat of the same actor during "Johanna"? This played like a Gothic Groundhog Day that completely took me out of the moment. Why when you have two actors, one clean shaven and one with goatee, is Sweeney given the actor with the goatee in the mimed contest with Pirelli?
The costumes by Veronica Prior are excellent with one unfortunate exception. I understand that the second act costume for Mrs. Lovett was a high concept idea but it just didn't fit with the rest of the costumes. I'm pretty sure though that, considering the heat in the theatre and the added heat from stage lights, it must have seemed like welcome relief to Sheridan.
James Jennings light design worked well, and I especially liked the flooding of the stage with red light whenever Sweeney cut a victim's throat. This was a most effective way to replace the need for actual blood. At moments some actors were out of their light, but that is not Jennings' fault.
There were also issues with the band, where it seemed like the mic for the piano was much louder than all the other mics. This sadly lead to a less full sound than one would have wished at times. The sound for the band was also muddy.
In the final analysis, what makes this production, despite its problems, a must see experience, is the exceptional work of Cathie Sheridan and Joe Penrod as Lovett and Todd. These are two of Austin's musical theatre treasures at the top of their game giving as fine a performance in these iconic roles as any I have seen. They are worth the price of admission and, yes, even enduring the heat of the un-airconditioned venue.
Running time: Three Hours and Forty Minutes including one intermission
ADVISORY: This venue has only one restroom and no air conditioning, dress appropriately
SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET, produced by Austin Theatre Project, at BAM Academy Performing Arts Center located at 113 Industrial Blvd. Industrial Blvd.
October 14 - 29, 7:30 p.m. Thursdays - Saturdays, 5:30 p.m. Sunday, industry night Monday, October 26, 2016.
Tickets and information available via http://www.austintheatreproject.org/tickets
Photo Credit: Doc List