BWW Review: ArtsWest's SWEENEY TODD Sounds Good but Inconsistent
The Sondheim classic "Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" is one of those shows that everyone wants to put their own stamp on. It's an incredibly rich show and quite difficult to perform requiring a killer cast (pun intended). There have been concerts, productions where the actors play the instruments, and now an Off-Broadway production where they actually serve the audience hot pies. And locally it's been done to excess. Now ArtsWest has thrown their razors into the ring with their own particular take on this anti-hero by offering it up with a diverse cast and in a somewhat timeless era London. And while there are some decent voices up there, overall the cast lacks character intent and the diversity and time shift lend nothing to the story and at times muddy it.
In any production of "Sweeney Todd" the key is to have a mad and dangerous Sweeney (Ben Gonio). He's a simple barber, originally known as Benjamin Barker, who has been sent to prison for life for a crime he didn't commit so the local Judge Turpin (Jeff Church) can seduce his beautiful wife Lucy. When Lucy goes mad and dies the Judge adopts Barker and Lucy's daughter Johanna (Emilie Hanson). Now several years later, Barker has escaped from his island prison and been rescued from drowning by the young sailor Anthony (Jordan Iosua Taylor). He's come back to London, now under the name Sweeney, for his revenge on the Judge and the judge's toady Beadle Bamford (Jon Lee-Vroman) and has found an ally in struggling pie maker Mrs. Lovett (Corinna Lapid Munter) who savEd Barker's silver razors in case he ever came back. The judge has become enamored of the now grown Johanna and plans to marry her but she and Anthony Meet and fall in love. And then the murders and cannibalism begins.
So, as I said Sweeney needs to be mad and dangerous and unfortunately Gonio feels about as dangerous as someone working at Supercuts. Sure, he's killing people but we never really get any indication to any kind of break or insanity. He's got a good voice but feels way too young for the role and it's that lack of maturity that feeds into the lack of character. Also seemingly too young for the role is Munter as the crazed pie maker but she manages much more character and her voice is incredible and shone through as one of the bright spots of the show. Another bright spot would have to be Jimmie Herrod in a gender bent casting as the crazed Beggar Woman. Also too young for the part but also throwing his all into the role and managing some insanely difficult vocals beautifully.
The rest of the ensemble is trying really hard but unfortunately they look like they're trying hard and are filled with inconsistencies. Some actors have the British accent, some have a bad version of a British accent and some don't even try. And that inconsistency of accent translates into muddled characters some feeling a part of old London and some feeling like they came from a bad CW teen drama. As I said, directors Mathew Wright and Eric Ankrim, are trying for a timeless era but timeless doesn't mean throwing all time periods in at the same time. Having some in period costumes and characters while others are in hoodies and sneakers doesn't lend anything to the feel of the show, it just looks indecisive. They even start the show with period looking Sweeney listening to BBC news on the radio which just made no sense.
All told the show feels all over the place and fails to tell what should be a gripping and terrifying story. Because of that, with my three-letter rating system, I give ArtsWest's production of "Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" a scattered MEH. Any show should immerse you into its world, but with so much inconsistency I felt immersed in nothing.
"Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" performs at ArtsWest through July 1st. For tickets or information visit them online at www.artswest.org.