Donâ€™t Be Afraid of Human Raceâ€™s Sweeney Todd
Posted On June 23, 2017
Review by Ken Stern of Sweeney Todd: Human Race Theatre
If you know â€œThe Ballad Of Sweeney Todd,â€ he whose â€œskin was pale and his eye was oddâ€, and Stephen Sondheimâ€™s 1979 musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, having it called a love story might be a surprise. See the production, now playing at Daytonâ€™s Human Race Theatre, and find three. Anthony Hope is lovestruck for Johanna on first sight (and hearing). Todd is brokenhearted over the loss of his wife and daughter. Mrs. Lovett has a cute, deep crush on Todd.
Then there is the evil Judge Turpin, with his perverse desire for Johanna. And that is the story of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The richly costumed, well sung (18 songs) and acted production is well worth the drive. You have until October 2nd.
Sometimes a musical takes the milieu of the underclass and its oppression by the one percent and offers insights into societyâ€™s subjugations. Three Penny Opera casts such a light. Sweeney Todd does not. But taken as a comic book, a modern day Victorian penny dreadful, it succeeds wonderfully. Sondheimâ€™s vision, and Hugh Wheeler stage adaptation of Christopher Bondâ€™s 1970 play, creates a believable tale of palpable motivation for Sweeney Toddâ€™s actions. The play is two dimensional, but suspend your disbelief. Itâ€™s a play, not a biography.
The cast is uniformly good, made better by spot-on period costuming (Costumer Janet G. Powellâ€™s results are spectacular) and what must be an inside joke of superb hair styles: Aaron Vegaâ€™s The Beadle is the most incredible, (as is his nervous tic). Jamie Cordes as Sweeney Todd creates a strong presence with his sensitive single mindedness for meting out justice. Rebecca Watson, brought in from New York, plays Mrs. Lovett as a savvy, mature Lucille Ball. Her imperfect voice is perfectly fit to her flair and verve and stage presence. Zack Steeleâ€™s Anthony Hope is the sailor we all want to steal away our daughters. And DJ Plunkettâ€™s Tobias Ragg completely captures the naive, not-quite-all-there young assistant, first to rival barber Pirelli and then to Mrs.Lovett. He acts sharply, as he pledges in â€œNot While Iâ€™m Around.â€ The actor, voice, and character all meld.
The band, hidden behind the set, is well directed by Sean Michael Flowers. I am not musically adept, and what I consider the discordant, oddly timed Sondheim phrasing in both composition and lyrics is perfectly captured by the New York Timeâ€˜s 1979 Broadway opening review, terming it â€œa powerful, coruscating [sparkling] instrument, this muscular partnership of words and music.â€ Listen, and hear for yourself.
On stage, Scott Stoneyâ€™s direction matches his production teamâ€™s sharpness. The audience comes into a dark and misty Fleet Street borough. Center stage is a two tier revolving set, a gargantuan wedding cake. The first floor is most often Mrs. Lovettâ€™s pie shop (where she initially bakes â€œThe Worst Pies In Londonâ€) and the second floor starts as Toddâ€™s apartment, which it was 15 years before the play opens. Soon the second floor is his barber shop. Midway through the second act, a fancy barber chair is installed with a feature that cleverly links Toddâ€™s dirty deeds to the pie shopâ€™s bakehouse. Kudos to the set designer (Dan Gray).
As the second act opens Mrs. Lovett is happily making money in a crowded shop (ahem) hand over fist, thanks to the secret ingredient supplied by barber Todd. The ensemble, again in great costumes (as well as Lovettâ€™s and Toddâ€™s new duds), clamor for more, singing â€œGod Thatâ€™s Good.â€ From there the Horatio Alger plot becomes more melodramatic, moving (and stage spinning) lively to Sweeneyâ€™s Todd final shaveâ€”his own.
The audience loved it. This Human Race Theatre production delivers.