BWW Reviews: Fresh SWEENEY TODD Reinvents Darkness
Stephen Sondheim's 1979 masterpiece Sweeney Todd is considered by some as both the best his pen has provided us, and also the hardest. The troubling score, the precariously deep characters, a Shakespearean plot, all tumultuously monstrous to balance and perfect- ask the many all-star revivals, each trying to master this beast, and many stumbling along the way. Against all odds, Palm Beach Dramawork's Clive Cholerton takes the demon barber's ballads into new dimensions of cruelty and possibility. Introducting new elements, new turns, and new chills to audiences brave enough to venture on London's Fleet Street, Cholerton's Sweeney Todd is a bloody highlight to south Florida's theater greats.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street follows the tale of the titular barber in his thirst for revenge, a twisting, turning plot of vengeance and the dark nature of the human soul. Some believe the existence of a real Sweeney Todd in early nineteenth century London, cooking his meat pies with Mrs. Lovett's aid. The musical's plot adds love, treachery, and corruption in a memorable cast of characters, each imbued with new soul at the Palm Beach Dramaworks stage.
Cholerton's Sweeney begins with a haunting, silent sequence before the 'Ballad of Sweeney Todd' begins the haunting tale expects. This new story framing sways the night's events, an intellectual addition blending ambiguity with certainty of Sondheim's themes. This creative flair does wonders alongside his use of ensemble- at all times, there are gaunt, skeletal faces peering at the action; on most occasions, the ensemble plays vital roles in the action itself, going as far to hand Sweeney his razors, disrobe characters, or guide them to their goals. This Sweeney Todd is more predatory on all fronts, and more focused on the evil in all hearts rather than just in the narrative.
The show's brunt is borne on Shane Tanner, as the demon barber himself, whose broad shoulders and booming dominance send chills. A production of Sweeney Todd can be measured solely on the presence of danger and horror, both of which Tanner delivers in abundance. Never has Todd been so fragile, so forced into cruelty- this is a Sweeney who transforms before you, not the atypical Todd who returns to London already broken. Tanner's 'Epiphany' is an emotional peak to the first act, a soliloquy that finally gives the character the question he needs answered- but, crucially, Tanner's Sweeney is not given the answer to his question.
Enter the impeccable Ruthie Stephens. Mrs. Lovett, the owner of the adjacent pie-shop and Todd's collaborator, has not been portrayed with such inventive sway and character since Angela Lansbury's origination. Stephens takes inspiration from various sources, even her English background, to give Lovett a blasé, utilitarian cruelty. The dry wit mixes with her sensational soprano in refreshing tones. The character's turn comes in at 'Little Priest', where her exasperation meets her pragmatism and she turns Cholerton's show into overdrive from which it cannot escape; most importantly, this may be the first Lovett to completely bind the confused Todd into the demon barber persona- Stephens runs the show, undeniably, and it could not be craftier.
Watching the cast slowly darken through the show is perverse entertainment of the highest form. There may be no clearer sight of this than Paul Louis Lessard's Anthony Hope, the hapless romantic of the show, who begins the first act as a starry eyed sailor and by the second act's climax is showing wear and tear. His tenor bursts through his numbers (a memorable 'Johanna' comes to mind), stealing as many hearts as his baby blues will; truly, Lessard's innocence is a selling point, as Anthony has never seemed so impulsive and a danger to himself (or others). Alongside him, Jennifer Molly Bell's Johanna is flawless. 'Green Finch and Linnet Bird' to 'Kiss Me,' each time Bell is onstage is captivatingly pure, giving tragedy to her exasperated confusion in the second act. The chemistry and sincerity Bell brings to the tortured lover is deep, but she never fails to imbue strength into the broken woman.
The two who show no sign of change are the antagonist duo, in Michael McKenzie's Judge Turpin and the dastardly Beadle performed by Jim Ballard. McKenzie's Turpin is the delightful evil familiar fans will expect, and thankfully indulges a bit too deep into his 'Johanna (Mea Culpa).' A usually minor role is turned large by Ballard, who gives decrepid habits, witticisms, and mannerisms to his Beadle Bamford- a slimier Beadle could not be asked for.
The darkest vision of Cholerton's Sweeney lies behind the eyes of the demented Beggar Woman (Shelley Keelor). Although her quick flips in mood and conversational manner can scripturally exact laughter, Keelor's performance is tragedy in pure, showcasing London's horrors and the realism of the piece. Her voice rivals even Merle Louise's, an immeasurable soprano that evicts beauteous pain and nothing more in 'Beggar Woman's Lullaby.' Minor flashes of light come from the youthful Evan Alexander Jones' Tobias 'Toby' Ragg, whose corruption is more destructive than any other character. His light tenor builds in each song, soaring endearingly with the charm inherent to such a broken child.
The gaunt, skeletal apparitions that are the ensemble are what keep Cholerton's framing device moving, breathing, haunting. Christopher Holloway's baritone-bass is a splendour across the opening ballad, Alex Mansoori is delightfully dangerous as Pirelli (and what a tenor in 'The Contest', it's a shame he didn't pull any teeth), and Terry Hardcastle's Fogg is skin-crawling, but when they blend out of character into the rafters, the soul they embody is even more drawing. Hannah Richter and Victoria Lauzun, a killer soprano and splitting alto respectively, pair along with them to swivel the action in the way they see fit. This ensemble designs the show in a way most Sweeney productions couldn't imagine.
Each number, each violent whistling reed, is barely contained in the bursting score Sondheim delivers, something Manny Schvartzman ties to the mast for his purposes. With his talented orchestra (Dake Sandvold's violins, Julie Jacob's percussions that rock the second act, Christopher Glansdorp as cellist, and Rick Kissinger's show-defining reeds), Schvwartzman navigates the score, and perfects it- Sweeney is 90% score and he gets it 100% solid.
Michael Amico's scenic design seems built to match Cholerton's framing idea, a sprawling (and, strangely for Sweeney, static) set made of wood, evoking haunted factory interiors. It seems a shame that the warm tones of Donald Edmund Thomas' lighting designs get eaten up by the set most of the first act, but Thomas shines through with his low lit specials and darker ideas in the second act (special mention to his 'City on Fire' sequence).
Truly, such a fresh interpretation of a classic musical theatre staple cannot be missed. Palm Beach Dramaworks has managed wonders, and Cholerton's Sweeney may well become the dominant Sweeney in south Florida's history. Don't wait to find tickets, seats are dwindling, and you don't want to wander into the barber's chair when he's seeking new supplies.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street runs from July 14th through August 6th. Tickets are available online or at the door, including Palm Beach Dramaworks' new 'Pay your Age' promotion.