This gem of a productions runs through November 6th

By: Sep. 30, 2022
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Tucked into the basement performance space of the Chopin Theater amidst rows of mismatched arm chairs that look like they came right out of grandma's attic, you might be inclined to call Kokandy's production of SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET "Tiny Todd."

You'd be wrong

The production might be tiny, but it is a gem.

This is the kind of storefront theater that has always set Chicago apart from New York and the West End. Productions may not have the budgets, sets and space, but ambitious, storefront theater productions often succeed in thrilling theater. And that is exactly what is delivered in bloody spades in director Derick Van Barham's hands. With every compromise that has been made due to the limitations of the theater space, budget and the production's spartan set design by G "Max" Maxin IV, Van Barham has met each challenge with a abundant creativity. Less truly is more in this case.

Presented in the round in a theater space that is cozy, intimate and slightly claustrophobic, Stephen Sondheim's bloody, macabre and darkly funny masterpiece is presented as a chamber musical with most of its theatrical flourishes (like a barber chair with trap door) stripped away.

Frankly, the production allows you to fully appreciate the music and lyrics by Sondheim in ways that perhaps you haven't before. Perhaps the music and lyric are all the embellishment one needs, really.

And the production demonstrates perhaps better than most that when a director/choreographer has something to say and also when the acting and singing are good enough, theatergoers are willing to fill in the blanks with their own imaginations.

And there are some great performances here!

When we first see Kevin Webb's Benjamin Barker, the unjustly imprisoned barber who escapes from prison and creates an alias of Sweeney Todd, Webb contorts his body in fits and twitches as if he truly is possessed. It is unsettling, unnerving and simply perfect for the character.

Here is a man haunted by what could have been, beaten down into submission by a cruel world consumed by a need to lash out at the world. After 15 years of being wrongfully imprisoned by the vile Judge Turbin (Christopher Johnson), his plan to reunite with his beloved wife Lucy and his daughter Johanna (Chamaya Moody) lie in ruins. The Judge has taken Johanna as his ward and now plans to marry her.

As Mrs. Lovett, Barker/Todd's landlady and pie shop owner who is looking to profit from Sweeney's murderous rage by using his victims as meat in her pies, Caitlan Jackson is an absolute delight. She nails the gallows humor required of the role along with enough moxy and unrequited love for her murderous barber that you can't help but fall in love with her.

Patrick O'Keefe perfectly captures the the naïve and simple nature of Tobias, who first works with con man Adolfo Pirelli (Quinn Rigg) and eventually finds a maternal figure of sorts in Mrs. Lovett.

As the starstruck, young lovers Anthony (Ryan Stajmiger) and Johanna (Moody) lack the chemistry usually associated with the characters, but this only further drives home the point that their relationship is a bit preposterous (Johanna agrees to marry her dashing young sailor and run away with him before she even learns his name). You get the sense that she sees him as the one to open her metaphoric bird cage and free her. He is merely a means to an end. And for his part, he is naïve enough to think that his sudden infatuation he has for this women that he first views from afar is something grander (or lasting) than it really is.

"You are young/Life has been kind to you/You will learn," Sweeney cautions Anthony in "No Place Like London," and you can't help but realize Sweeney is probably correct; neither Johanna nor Anthony are headed towards anything resembling a happy ending.

As Judge Turpin, Christopher Johnson is a bit too young and, frankly, a bit too good looking for you to believe his ward Johanna is repulsed by his appearance or his affections. A scene where the judge self-flagellates himself because of the lusty thoughts he is having towards his ward is in some strange way, slightly erotic in a Fifty Shades of Grey kind of way.

Still, Johnson succeeds in coming across at lecherous and perhaps the duplicity of outer beauty/inner demon might work well for people who are unfamiliar with past performers in the role.

As Turpin's partner in crime, the corrupt public official Beadle Bamford, Josiah Haugen also manages to embrace a bit of duality here. He is less the mustache-twirling minion as usually portrayed and more a product of the situation he finds himself in. Like Mrs. Lovett, he is eking by the best he can. His reaction when the Judge tells him he will need to essentially miss his own daughter's birthday to cater to the Judge's latest whim is particularly heart-breaking. And this is the kind of moment that can only be conveyed in a smaller theater space.

Van Barham's choreographs the ensemble during the second act opener "God, That's Good!" in grotesque poses as they dive into her pies like pigs at the trough. This is a world that is eating it's own; a commentary that is as fitting here as it is in discussing "Night of the Living Dead." Would the denizens of London care that Lovett is literally making meals out of the less fortunate? Given the cruelty and injustice that surrounds the events of the play, probably not.

Without spoiling too much, Van Barham also makes an interesting choice with his treatment of "the final girl" horror film trope that turns things on its head. You're likely to feel an uneasiness long after you have left the confines of the tiny theater space.

The lyric in the show "No one can help, nothing can hide you / Isn't that Sweeney there beside you?" works both figuratively and literally in this production. Yes, we as society are both Sweeney and Judge, but given the proximity to the stage space, at many moments through the show Sweeney is right there beside you.

Combined with Van Barham's choice for the final moments of the show, the musical is the perfect scare for the Halloween season.

SWEENEY TODD runs through November 6 at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division. for tickets.