Review: Eight O'Clock Theatre's Production of Stephen Sondheim's SWEENEY TODD

The last throat is slit on May 12th!

By: May. 05, 2024
Review: Eight O'Clock Theatre's Production of Stephen Sondheim's SWEENEY TODD
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Musical theatre doesn’t get any better than SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET.  This is not to suggest that it’s merely good or great; it’s more than that.  It’s Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece, which means that it’s the best of the best, top of the heap. It stands at the pinnacle with the greatest works by Americans in any art form: In movies, we have The Godfather;  in novels, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby; and in pop music we have The Beach BoysPet Sounds. But when it comes to musical theatre works, SWEENEY TODD must be crowned as our blood-drenched king of the hill.

With music and lyrics by Mr. Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler, SWEENEY TODD is as dark as burnt toast. It’s an indictment of vengeance, a comedy-horror tale where revenge doesn’t taste so sweet.  In it, barber Benjamin Barker has been exiled for years for a crime he did not commit only to return as Sweeney Todd, a man on a mission for vengeance. With the help of a meat pie shop owner, Mrs. Lovett, he comes up with the perfect plan: While waiting to kill the judge who had originally exiled him years earlier and had stolen his wife and daughter, he will ply his trade as a murderous barber on “less honorable throats,” and the dead strangers will be turned into yummy meat pies, where their bodies can’t ever be traced.  Sounds like an airtight plan, right? Not so fast; twists and turns abound, and the ending of SWEENEY TODD is as gorgeously bleak as anything in musical theatre.   

It’s a show that has everything that your local psychopath might crave: Murder, cannibalism, quasi-incest, star-crossed lovers, insane asylum patients run amok, a beggar woman with a secret, a miracle elixir made from urine, dead birds, sliced throats, and blood.  Lots and lots of blood.  It can gush more blood than any kill-fest by cinema’s Wizard of Gore, Herschell Gordon Lewis.  And yet it’s quite funny.  Rarely do blood and laughs mix together so well. 

The Eight O’Clock Theatre’s current production of SWEENEY TODD has much to offer, but there are also some questionable choices that cannot help but be addressed.  Their work here is an imperfect production of what I believe to be the greatest musical yet written.

As Sweeney, David Russell dons a shaved head, a la Walter White, but the part has become more cerebral than aggressively proactive.  Although ominous at times, the character seems almost laid back, a quality we usually don’t usually associate with the deranged Sweeney.  There are moments when he perks up in wicked delight, as in the showstopping “A Little Priest” that closes Act 1.  There’s a connection that he has with Mrs. Lovett that works; she’s all over him and he halfheartedly obliges.  And there’s an instance when he sings the glorious “Johanna” quartet that I adored: When a man brings his young son along to get a haircut, Sweeney is utterly  disappointed and frustrated by the appearance of the boy and, thus, he can’t slit the customer’s throat now.  He sings out his displeasure, and it’s a marvelous moment. 

But we rarely feel Sweeney’s forceful need for revenge, the obsessive drive in the character.  Mr. Russell sings quite well but oftentimes the words get lost. We need to be scared of the whip-smart razor-wielding serial killer that Sweeney will become, especially starting in the song “Epiphany,” but that doesn’t happen.  It’s as if Michael Myers decided to hang back a little and not go for the jugular with his knife in the Halloween movies.  Mr. Russell was far feistier as Svec in Once and more rousing as King Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar at EOT.  He’s quite good here, but sometimes comes across too tame, almost mellow, as if Sweeney had been popping anti-anxiety pills.

As Mrs. Lovett, Lauren Butterfield stands out in this cast.  Lithe, with a swan-like neck and a hair style not unlike Gary Oldman’s old man vampire in Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula,  Ms. Butterfield is stunning.  She brings out the sultry nature of Mrs. Lovett, the need for companionship with her overt lust for Sweeney.  She is all over him, rubbing him, playing with his razors almost as if they could eventually manifest into some kinds of kinky and dangerous sex toys.  She’s getting off on the whole thing, not just because her business booms with their human-meat pie scheme, but that she has finally found a man to take the place of her husband who had died seventeen years earlier.  That’s a long time for loneliness, and you feel that her need for a lover has unleashed other, darker areas of her personality.  Mrs. Lovett becomes the cause for so much misery in all of the other characters, and Ms. Butterfield unblinkingly dives right in, turning the character’s unpleasantries into a laugh riot. 

There is a Chloris Leachman quality to Ms. Butterfield, which is a major compliment coming from me.  This is the type of performance that causes me to make a pun with the name “Lovett” and write “LOVE IT!” in my notebook.  I remember Ms. Butterfield as a standout in EOT’s Avenue Q years ago, and she once again drives the show here. 

Kayley Jewel is quite a find as Johanna, sporting a lovely singing voice and a verve that I seldom have seen in the character; her "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" will steal your heart. Kyle Williamson has the leading man good-looks for Anthony, and he connects quite well with Ms. Jewel’s Johanna; their “Kiss Me" is quite well done.  Jenna Jane does fine work in the key part of the Beggar Woman, and Steven Fox makes the small role of Jonas Fogg memorable.    Griffin Spriggs is likable as Tobias but lacks any semblance of a British accent and seems miscast.  “Not While I’m Around” may be one of Sondheim’s loveliest duets, but you would never know it here.    

As the sinister Judge Turpin, the imposing Stu Stanford is a hulking presence, with long Leon Russell hair and beard. At one point the Judge is so totally devoid of empathy that he sentences a young lad to death by hanging.  As Sondheim noted in his book, Finishing the Hat (required reading for any musical theatre buff), the Judge is the only main character in the show without his own song.  He gets the wonderful duet with Sweeney, “Pretty Women,” which is a highlight in this production; but it’s still not a solo.  The original Broadway  production included the horrific “Johanna” that Judge Turpin sings as he flagellates himself, and it gets my vote for most underrated Sondheim song.  Forty-five years ago, Sondheim & Co. felt the song slowed down the action too much and ultimately cut it.  But it needs to be restored, and Mr. Sanford is so good that I wish they had included it here. 

As for the talented Megan Jetter as Beadle Bamford, I am all for gender-switching in the casting of roles, but unfortunately it doesn’t work here.  Ms. Jetter has a terrific singing voice, but we never feel the intimidation or power of such an officer in the character here.  Beadle should be an extension of the chief villain, a toady, like Grand Moff Tarkin next to Darth Vader or the annoying Salacious Crumb next to Jabba the Hutt but dripping with more self-importance.  Here, it’s just another character that leaves us wanting more.  Take for example when the Judge tells Beadle of his plan to marry his own ward, and the Beadle says, “Happy news indeed!”  That one line could have so many colors, so much subtext, mainly because the Beadle could be jealous, or that he knows it’s a bad idea and goes along smilingly to placate the Judge, but you never get that feeling here.  The line is stated without any seasoning, and we miss out on any motivation that the Beadle, a great character, might have.  The performance leaves a void, an imbalance, in the evil duo.

My vote for best in the cast goes to DJ Schutt as a rather foppy Pirelli. With hair like a pre-Raphaelite (or Slash)  and dressed  like he stepped out of a Fragonard painting and onto the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Mr. Schuett is deliciously villainous with a glass-breaking singing voice to die for.  Pirelli is a small but key part in SWEENEY TODD, with about fifteen minutes total stage time, but Mr. Schuett shows us that even the smallest part can be the one that we cherish the most.  Outstanding work.

The ensemble is the heart of the show, always creepy and macabre, with obviously no issue of being showered in blood.  They include: Cheyna Alexander, Amber Britner, Kevin Buete, a very strong Rei Capote, David W. Collins, Mary Davis, Lauren Dykes, Emma Foroutan, Sara Heller, Alexis Kersey, Sarah Libes, Christian McCormick, Reginald Simmons, Jake Veit, TJ Venieris, Jenelle Vinachi and Katie Voorhees, the latter looking like she stepped right out of an Anne Rice novel. 

Technically the production is a marvel, from the inventive set and eerie lighting to the spot-on costumes, from Amy Fee’s creative choreography to the orchestra (led by music director, Jason Tucker).  Mr. Tucker also directs, and he obviously has a knack for bringing out the joyous darkness of the Dickensian era and of the show itself.  It’s a tight production that he has guided, but it never zooms by too fast.  There are several touches that I enjoy: Such as the blood soaked victims of Sweeney’s razor and the wickedly wonderful way they are disposed and, especially, how the light keeps shining on the audience during  “Epiphany,” when the demon barber sings, “We all deserve to die!” The light then shines directly on us as if suddenly we’re included in Sweeney’s wrath.  It’s a nice touch.

That said, some things didn’t work.  The piercing Bernard Herrmann Psycho-whistle that starts the show wasn’t shrieky enough.   And the twist ending (no spoilers here) is overtly shown to us long  before the actual revelation.  The music gives us the hint if we’re ever looking, but what was done here was made far too obvious for my tastes (you’ll know what I am writing about when you see the show).

As I previously mentioned, SWEENEY TODD is the finest musical yet written, and the EOT production, even with some of the questionable issues I had with it, is worth many accolades.  It’s not everyone’s plate of meat pies, but its horrifically humorous delights are boundless.  It’s the Sondheim show for people who don’t like Sondheim (shame on them, whoever they are). And it’s a musical that spotlights what happens when we let vengeance blanket us, when we eclipse grace from our lives, and when we turn away from our better angels and let our lesser devils take over.  It's exhilerating. 

Eight O’Clock Theatre’s production of SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET plays at the Largo Cultural Center and runs thru May 12th.  Not for the faint of heart. 

Photo Credit: Chaz D Photography


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