BWW Review: Reboot's SWEENEY TODD Needs to go Back in the Oven
Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's "Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street" is arguably a masterpiece of American Musical Theatre. It's haunting, thrilling, and heartbreaking when it's done right. But in order to do it right you need to understand and be able to convey this complex story and characters as well as sing some quite difficult music. Unfortunately, the current gender bent production from Reboot Theatre Company chose to forsake that story for comedy and sight gags leaving a confused, under baked, sloppy mess.
We all know the tale of Sweeney Todd, or at least you should by now after countless productions and even a film (as horrifying as it was). Barber Benjamin Barker was sent off to prison on trumped up charges due to the local Judge Turpin's (Harry Turpin) lust for his wife. Now years later Barker has returned under the name Sweeney Todd (Mandy Rose Nichols) only to find that his wife is gone and the Judge has taken in his daughter Johanna (Cammie Smith) as his ward. Sweeney, with the aid of Mrs. Lovett (Alyssa Keene), devises a plan to exact his revenge and in the process the two begin killing off people who have wronged them and use the flesh from their corpses as filling for Mrs. Lovett's meat pies.
But the story is so much more than killing and blood on stage as Sweeney should be an incredibly broken character, as should the Beggar Woman (Justine Davis) but instead are played off here as simply brooding or a joke. Director Julia Griffin has taken this story and obscured it in an attempt to make it "modern" by having the cast wander around with smart phones as if they were Tweeting out the tale of Sweeney Todd. And that leads us to problem number one. They're shouldn't be telling the tale to each other but to the audience and that connection with the audience to the story is killed as everyone is looking down, staring at their phones. Then introduce confusing at best, somewhat modern costumes from Barbara Klingberg and thus begins the murder of this show. I could go on about how the lighting was sloppy and at times just left people in the dark mid-sentence or how they turned Sweeney's number "Johanna" which should tell us everything about him into a sight gag with victim after victim arriving in white jumpsuits with hashtags written all over them, but let's move on to the music.
Music Director Aimee Hong has taken on the task of shoehorning female voices into traditionally male parts not with a razor but a hatchet. Instead of changing the key of a song for a different voice she simply changes the octave of certain verses mid-song to accommodate that voice when it doesn't fit, creating several breaks in the flow the songs and eliminating any kind of decent harmonies. Seriously, any time someone attempted a harmony it was an assault on the ears. But then that could be due to the cast.
They're trying, I'll give them that, but Sondheim at best is difficult and many are just not up to it. Nichols takes on Sweeney with a malevolent scowl but doesn't hold it. Their voice handles the songs well enough, but they lack the power and gravitas to really sell it. Keene's Mrs. Lovett seems to be in a different show all her own. She's over the top and shows little nuance to the character and does not blend well vocally with Nichols. Davis takes the crazed beggar woman and turns her into one-note comic relief. And the vocals from her should shake the rafters and barely shook anything but my head. Brittany Allyson as the lovelorn Anthony doesn't show much love but rather faux-lust for Smith's Johanna and the two have no chemistry. And I suspect the night I saw it Allyson missed a crucial entrance. Either that or they've changed the story. In either case it completely sapped the Judges intentions for the rest of the play. Turpin sings Judge Turpin well enough but his big number lacked the lust/shame it needed. And Vincent Milay and Karin Terry as Pirelli and Tobias come off as overdone clowns as was the inexplicable character of Kylee Gano as the Beadle, who for some reason was dressed as a young, white, rapper thug but also was the assistant to the local Judge.
I've seen over-produced and under-produced productions of "Sweeney Todd" before but this one combines both those descriptions as they've jammed in bits that don't belong and haven't thought things out well enough to make any of it cohesive. And so, with my three-letter rating system, I give Reboot Theatre Company's production of "Sweeny Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" a "please God let this 3-hour nightmare end" NAH. And one final note to all theatrical endeavors out there. If you're going to alter the setting or tone or time period of a show, your main goal is to focus on two things before you even begin. First, make sure your alterations compliment and lend something to the piece and second, think those alterations all the way through. Otherwise you get a bloody mess, and not the one you want.
"Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" from Reboot Theatre Company performs at the Slate Theater through June 1st. For tickets or information visit them online at www.reboottheatre.org.