BWW Review: Stephen Sondheim's Horrifying & Hilarious SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET at the Asolo - The Finest Musical Yet Written
What do you get when the greatest musical yet written is performed by the finest professional theatre in Florida?
Heaven, sheer heaven.
SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET (music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; book by Hugh Wheeler) has been deemed by many musical theatre aficionados as Sondheim's masterpiece, his Citizen Kane, his Ulysses. It's a darkly comedic homage to the horror films that influenced his youth, his tip of a stovepipe hat to the Alfred Hitchcock themes of Bernard Herrmann. It's also a celebration of theatre, telling one of the most warped tales found in an accessible show: A barber, seeking revenge to those who had wronged him and his family, goes off the rails and starts killing his customers, where their bodies are ultimately ground, cooked and turned into tasty meat pies in London. Who knew that that Grade-Z plot would lead to the pinnacle of musical theatre excellence?
It's a rollicking tour of Dickensian Hell, funny and frightening at the same time, and the Asolo production is just about the best you will ever find anywhere. The moment the show started--with a shocking beam of light thrust into our eyes to the heart-stopping shriek of an organ--we knew that we were in for the ride of our lives. "Holy shit!" I heard someone exclaim after the opening chord made them jump out of their seats. I don't know if they ever recovered from that initial shock.
Just ten actors and a handful of musicians bring this SWEENEY TODD to life. But these are not just any actors and musicians; they are the cream of the crop, from all around the country (including Broadway).
Leading the way is Allen Fitzpatrick as the strongest Sweeney I've ever encountered (and I've seen many). Imagine Dr. Emilio Lizardo as played by The Last Picture Show's Ben Johnson, with hair ironically like the Scissorman's in Der Struwwelpeter. Fitzpatrick brings a humanity to Sweeney, a certain sadness. His "My Friends," Sweeney's ode to his razors, is one of the greatest love songs Sondheim ever wrote, and Fitzpatrick captures this demented infatuation. And Fitzpatrick is handed the finest trifecta of songs in any show--"Pretty Women," followed by the chilling "Epiphany," followed by the show's standout number, "A Little Priest." (I just wish they didn't cut some of the lines from "A Little Priest"; it's such an iconic song that they didn't need to fiddle with it.) But Fitzpatrick is so powerful as Sweeney that we root for him, even when his specific revenge moves to the general populace, even as he slits throats and, at the same time, sings longingly of his daughter. At the end of the show, when he pushes his revenge one throat too many, his tragedy becomes our tragedy. It may be the finest single performance I have seen all year.
Sally Wingert is deliciously devilish as Mrs. Lovett, the brains behind Sweeney's road to revenge. I feel that she goes beyond the goofily awful pie-maker; there's something needy about her, a barrenness that needs to be filled since the death of her husband 17 years earlier. That's why she falls for Sweeney, and Wingert plays up the seductress in Mrs. Lovett, the sexuality. She's rubbing against Sweeney at all times, rasping through some of Sondheim's cleverest songs--"Poor Thing," "Wait," and a ridiculously funny "By the Sea." Her "Worst Pies in London" is amazing because of a) its obvious humor (she wipes her nose while kneading dough, then wipes her hands in the dough) and b) the clarity of her singing--I understood some of lines that I have been mis-hearing all of these years.
Thin and gangly, like a decrepit Wayland Flowers' Madame, Wingert really brings out the mastermind that is Mrs. Lovett; she's a strong woman, a survivor during hard times, manipulating the key events of the show. And as her name suggests, she loves it. In some ways, she plays Dr. Frankenstein to her monster, Sweeney. Mrs. Lovett is a vile creation, perhaps the devil incarnate (it's alluded to several times in the show), but she's so entertaining and laugh-out-loud funny that you forgive any and all of her putridness.
James Ramlet makes for a foreboding Judge Turpin, perhaps musical theatre's coldest, most intimidating villain. He's like a Goliath Mr. Potter from It's a Wonderful Life with long Leon Russell hair. And his rich, deep voice shakes your soul, quakes your boots. He's so good that I wish that they had added the Judge's self-flagellating version of "Johanna," which is usually cut from the show for length.
Colin Anderson's turn as the brown-nosing Beadle Bamford is brilliantly realized. He's rat-like and snobby, thinking himself far more important than his worth. With his long hair, he looks like Dante Gabriel Rossetti as a member of the 1960's rock band, Cream. And his voice, showcased in "Ladies in Their Sensitivities," is lovely, like the voice of God in the body of a mini-demon.
Elizabeth Hawkinson, as the ingenue, Johanna, possesses a lovely singing voice, spotlighted in her "Green Finch and Linnet Bird." Perry Sherman, as her suitor, Anthony, is also quite strong, and his "Johanna" starts off soothing and ends up defiant--a knight ready to rescue a damsel in distress. The talented Sara Ochs plays the mysterious and pathetic Beggar Woman, physicalizing the role like few others. Benjamin Dutcher is quite versatile in various roles, including the head of the asylum, Jonas Fogg.
David Darrow is marvelously awkward as the lost Tobias; his "Not While I'm Around" an ode to slaying the monsters of life, is formidable. (I only wish Mr. Darrow had a better disguise as one of Sweeney's victims; for a moment, we thought he was slicing Tobias' throat!) Evan Tyler Wilson makes for the zaniest Pirelli--Sweeney's rivial--in memory. With patches on his outfit, like an overstuffed harlequin, and hair like Princess Leia, he cuts a remarkably memorable character. And Wilson hits high notes like nothing I've heard before--Maria Callas on helium.
I have attended the tale of SWEENEY TODD many times, but the Asolo version is the tautest yet. Yet it doesn't feel rushed. Much of its success is due to director Peter Rothstein. Its brilliantly staged and paced, causing my heart to accelerate throughout it. There are moments where the audience must hold its collective breath. The opening number, "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," like something out of The Walking Dead, and it's genuinely frightening. Each character moves with purpose, and you believe it's a cast of thirty, not ten.
Paul Whitaker's lighting design really brings out the storyline, like the London background turning bright red--it's a city on fire and bleeding at the same time. Kate Sutton-Johnson's set is a work of genius--a 1930's horror movie vibe, a jungle gym of terror. It's like Tod Browning and James Whale got together with David Lynch and David Fincher to create Sweeney's world.
Music director Gregg Coffin (great name!) should be applauded, marvelous vocal work from the cast. And the small orchestra sounds like it includes dozens of musicians: Tom Ellison on reeds; Carlann Evans and Sean O'Neil on violin; Susannah Kelly on cello; Brandon Maharaj and Dana Williams on French horn; and Thomas E. Suta on drums. Justin Stasiw's sound design jolted the audience out of their seats more than once.
Alice Louise Frederickson's costumes are wonderful and appropriate for the times, and Michelle Hart's wigs work wonders (especially for Mrs. Lovett, the Judge and all of the dowdy London denizens).
Good as the production is, there are a couple of little nit-picks. A minor anachronism near the beginning can be easily remedied: During the shadow play in the song "Poor Thing," Judge Turpin ends his terrifying sexual attack on Lucy, Sweeney's wife, by pantomiming the zipping of his zipper. For the record, the zipper was introduced at the 1893 World's Fair, and SWEENEY TODD takes place fifty years prior to that. Perhaps the Judge could mime buttoning the trousers instead. As it stands, the use of a zipper is nothing more than an aberration, barely worth a mention, but Sondheim said it best: "God is in the details."
During the show, the spell of SWEENEY TODD was broken for an instant by an eager usher who, after the brilliantly performed first number, shined a light into my face. "What seat are you sitting in, what row?" She asked me this in a seeming panic. She was looking to walk a latecomer to his seat in the dark. I wouldn't mind this, but the ushers at the Asolo need to know what rows are where, and to not shine a light in an audience member's face, momentarily pushing us away from the show, for any reason whatsoever.
SWEENEY TODD celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, and it still chills, still spellbinds. It's that rare work where entertainment and art merge, and to my ears, proudly stands as the greatest musical yet written. So, make an appointment to venture to the Asolo Theatre in Sarasota to see this masterpiece in all of its gory glory--a heavenly trip through hell. Perhaps the title to the opening song in Act 2 sums it up best: "God, That's Good!"
SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET at the Asolo in Sarasota runs through June 1st.