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Review: Attend the Tale of Stephen Sondheim's Masterpiece at SPC: SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET

It's a Bloody Delight!

Review: Attend the Tale of Stephen Sondheim's Masterpiece at SPC: SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET

"To seek revenge may lead to hell/But everyone does it, though seldom as well/As Sweeney/As Sweeney Todd/The Demon Barber of Fleet . . . Street!" --from "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd"

When Stephen Sondheim passed away the day after Thanksgiving last year at the age of 92, it became more than just the major Page One death of a celebrity or artist; it felt like we lost a member of the family. How, I wondered, can we get over such a tremendous loss? The answer to that question became apparent after watching the St. Petersburg College Theatre Department's jaw-droppingly creative production of SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET. I realized that, although Sondheim will be overwhelmingly missed for years to come, he has such a wide variety of works left behind that we can constantly celebrate him. And SWEENEY TODD is his inarguable masterpiece.

In SWEENEY TODD (music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; book by Hugh Wheeler), a naive barber named Benjamin Barker is sentenced to life on a remote island after an unscrupulous judge, having the hots for Sweeney's young wife, sent him away on trumped up charges. Benjamin escapes and returns years later as a new man with a new name, Sweeney Todd, with just one purpose: Kill the judge. With the help of his neighbors, Mrs. Lovett, whose having business troubles with her meat pie restaurant (she can't find anything to fill the pies, not even stray cats), he is there to exact vengeance on the judge. But when things fall through, Sweeney decides to kill any one he sees, and ultimately the victims' bodies are ground up in order to find a new purpose in death. Mrs. Lovett's business soon succeeds, and Sweeney, with the help of a young seaman named Anthony, must save his daughter, Johanna, now in the clutches of the vile judge.

I should add a SPOILER ALERT to this review for anyone who does not know this show (who are you?) Like Soylent Green, people are devoured as key ingrediants of Mrs. Lovett's meat pies in SWEENEY TODD. Yes, there are many slit throats; yes, there is plenty of blood splattering the stage like a collaboration between Jackson Pollack and Charles Manson; and yes, customers love to eat those scrumptious Soylent Greeny meat pies. But the show is about something else. It is one of the key works of art about the dire consequences of obsessions: Obsession for revenge (Sweeney); Obsession for romancing Sweeney (Mrs. Lovett); obsession for Johanna (Anthony and, ewww, the Judge, her surrogate dad); obsession for escape (Johanna); obsession for pleasing the Judge (Beadle); and obsession for pulling a fast con (Pirelli). Only Tobias, Pirelli's carnival barker toady, is too dim to obsess. But these obsessions lead to bad, bad things, mainly death.

Scott Cooper, the miracle working director and set designer at SPC, has outdone himself here. Working solely with college-age and high school students, and doing it in just five weeks, he has mounted a show easily as impressive as his previous finest summer offering, Urinetown, in 2018. He boasts a refreshing visionary take on this classic work, and having seen various SWEENEY TODD productions over the years, including the disappointing film version, I've never experienced one quite like this one. Set in the 1930's Depression Era (a hundred years after the Dickensian Era, when SWEENEY TODD usually takes place), the story is narrated in song by patients from an insane asylum. One by one, like tattered zombies, the cast slowly appear onstage before the show, the asylum inmates hidden in shadows. Some crouch down, covering their ears, and rock back and forth. Others laugh out of nowhere. Some walk unevenly as if a serpent has entered their spines. One patient even gets electro-shock therapy. It's disquieting stuff, and the show hasn't even begun yet. The inmates pop up throughout the work, moving sets, bring on props, and always keeping us updated on the blood-soaked shenanigans; they also remind us by their mere horrific appearances that the world around Sweeney-the world around us all-is a crazy place indeed. They turn a regular SWEENEY TODD into a veritable One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Leading the way in this production is Fable Rowell in the title role. This is unlike most performances of Sweeney I've witnessed. Rowell starts off rather quiet, very human, and grows more and more psychotic as the show rages on. I like this humanly approach, which is even alluded to at the end of the show: "Perhaps today you gave a nod/To Sweeney Todd/The demon barber of Fleet Street." Rowell resembles someone you might pass on the street, even nodding to them, which makes their story even more chilling. If a sane, albeit obsessive soul like Sweeney can become a serial killer, then anyone can.

There's an instance when Rowell has slit one of his customer's throats, and their body has chuted out of the barber chair. Sweeney, holding the man's hat, looks into the hole, and in a rare moment of dark joy, drops it. It's a splendid moment, akin to a mic drop set in hell. And in a famous scene featuring Pirelli, where Sweeney accuses the charlatan of fraud, Sweeney sniffs the bottle and even takes a sip before declaring it's made with "piss and ink." It reminded me of the "Bagman" episode of Better Call Saul, where the title character has to drink his own pee in the desert; the Sweeney audience howled in disgusted delight at this surprising moment.

Rowell's voice is in top shape, and he towers over the cast, over the show. His big love song ("My Friends") is dementedly sung to his razors; he loves them so much, he seems to almost embrace them. Although I miss a British accent from the character (it takes place in London), and some of Rowell's lines got lost in the shuffle due to speaking too fast and not enunciating the ends of words, that didn't bother me. He's so in character, so immovable in his obsessions, that it becomes a star-making role, meeting and even surpassing the potential I saw in him three years ago at Gibbs High School.

In the show, Sweeney sports a man-bun, and there's one instance where I wish Rowell made a different choice. As Act 1 is coming to a close, Sweeney sings the show-stopping "Epiphany," one of the scariest songs ever written. And they sing it beautifully, and I realized that the quiet person has now grown into a shouting creature, a killing machine. The audience was frightened into a hushed silence before a robust ovation after the song. But during it, Rowell's man-bun had become undone and their long hair flowed over the face, making them look like Richard Rimirez playing the Joker. It's frightening, and I realized how accomplished Rowell's performance was, how realized the slow build had been. But then they did something that negated all of that. After the song, they tied the man-bun back into place, rather than going all-in as a new-found monster, where there's no turning back in their serial killing desire ("They all deserve to die/Even you, Mrs. Lovett/Even I..."). "Epiphany" is a life-changing number, and the character shouldn't go back to the old Sweeney afterwards, even if the hair masks the face. The tying the man-bun back into place became too tidy, too nice; it gives the audience a breather after such an intense number. And there should be no rest, no breather, on this rollercoaster ride of terror. Sweeney has gone too far to turn back now.

Carli Kosloski is a revelation as Mrs. Lovett. With her red Bozo hair, like an inferno circling her head, a flaming cyclone crown for this queen of she-devils, she makes evil so pleasurable, bringing out the jokey villainy of the part and also her deep longing for a man like Sweeney, even if he turns out to be an executioner of the common folk (maybe she's attracted to him because he plays their executioner). Imagine Seven Beauties' Shirley Stoler playing Magenta in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and you get an idea of this force of nature. Her "Worst Pies in London," as she kills pugs with her rolling pin, is sensational, as is her "By the Sea," sung while she's gleefully polishing sharp knives. Make no mistake; this is easily one of the best performances I've seen all year.

Ethan White is remarkably alive and full of verve as Anthony Hope, the real hero of the tale. But there's something wild about him; he can't contain his thrill at falling in love. When he sings for his love, Johanna, to "look at me, look at me!" he hops around the stage as if he drank one Red Bull too many. And when he leaves Sweeney's barber shop, he jumps down the stairs like an excitable child on Christmas morning.

Autumn McNew is wonderful and real as the apple of Anthony's eye, Johanna. Donning blonde hair, she resembles a young Mary Pickford and seems angelic; her voice, as showcased in "Green Finch and Linnet Bird," is truly lovely.

Jason Calzon is memorable and quite effective as the cad, Pirelli, who gets to utilize more than one accent. Alexander Gault looks the part of the imposing Beadle, but it was sometimes hard to understand him. Eileen Lee is terrific as the Beggar Woman with a mystery or two. And Jay Overlin sounds good as the evil Judge Turpin, but he comes across way too young. And Overlin plays the part like a Bond baddie rather than one of the most sinister characters to grace any musical. At times I thought he was playing the part like Cladwell from Urinetown rather than SWEENEY TODD'S most evil and intimidating character.

Covid pushed its way into this performance when the young actor portraying Tobias got sick just a hand full of days before opening. Never fear, Ian Clark is here to the rescue! Clark's Tobias is a hapless soul, and he plays him marvelously. His scream after seeing a dead body turned into comic gold. I only wish his microphone didn't keep cutting out during his big song, "Not While I'm Around." But Clark saved the day, and I knew his victory was complete when someone nearby me asked after the show, "Which one of the cast had to understudy a role?" When I told them it was yon Mr. Clark as Tobias, they were shocked; he had done such an admirable, professional job...and he had just learned the part four days earlier. Now that's a miracle!

The entire ensemble of asylum inmates was sensational as well: Levi Erickson, Farrell Nuon, Allison Calabrese, Ella Jurusz, Maria Lara, Kiana Sipe, Jake Tottle, Preston Kifer, Ellery Pollack, Riley Evans, Isaiah Lizano, Charlie Lane, Kelsey Williams, Sierra Sharp, Parker Bayne, Noah Arcilla and Hope Lelekacs. Thanks to music director Latoya McCormick, their harmonies are bloody good. Special mention must be paid to Chloe Mastro, who gets my award for Best Ensemble Member. You can't take your eyes off of her in the ensemble scenes-she commits to the part 100% and is always ALWAYS in character, sometimes frighteningly so. Ms. Mastro proves that you don't have to be a leading role to be rewarded for doing magnificent work.

The show is a feast for techies. Katrina Stevenson's costumes suit the Depression Era well. Scott Cooper's set is a creepy delight, dark and eerie, a place where angels fear to tread (with keen help from Celeste N. Silby Mannerud's lighting design). It also happens to be one of Mr. Cooper's best sets, which is really saying something. The barber chair, that eventually chutes Sweeney's victims into the bake house, got applause when initially activated, as did the blood spraying across the stage at several intervals. This is not a musical for the squeamish, so you will never mistake it for Frozen Jr. unless Elsa decides to slice Olaf's and Anna's throats.

This production at the SPC Clearwater campus closes on Sunday, June 26th, and tickets (a $15 donation) can be purchased at the door. So attend the tale of SWEENEY TODD for the performances (both leads and ensemble), for the incredible set designs, for that story that resonates more now than ever. It will prove an incredible experience and give you hope for the future. But most important of all, come see it to celebrate the forty-third anniversary of the greatest work by the greatest musical theatre artist of the past five decades, a man who, at the age of 92, still left us way too soon.

From This Author - Peter Nason

    An actor, director, and theatre teacher, Peter Nason fell in love with the theatre at the tender age of six when he saw Mickey Rooney in “George M!” at the Shady Grove in Washington,... (read more about this author)

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