Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Theater Latté Da

Also see Arty's reviews of Murder for Two and The Little Pilot


Mark Benninghofen and Sally Wingert
Sweeney Todd stands as one of Stephen Sondheim's masterworks. With Sondheim's heaven-sent score, and Hugh Wheeler's deliciously wicked book (from an adaptation by Christopher Bond) that seems like it could have been ghost-written by the devil himself, Sweeney Todd takes audiences through the full gamut of human potential, from the height of artistic accomplishment to the depths of depravity. It is also a challenging show, one that requires a cast of terrific actor-singers, fine musicianship, and a clear directorial vision. Behold, Theater Latté Da's production playing at the Ritz Theater completely fills the bill.

For the many theater fans who have seen Sweeney Todd, either on stage or Tim Burton's 2007 movie version, there is no need to relay the story. For those who have never had the pleasure, my hope is that you can get to one of Latté Da's performances. I don't want to spoil your fun, so I will just set the stage. Set in mid-19th century London, Sweeney Todd is the tale of a barber unjustly imprisoned in Australia who escapes and returns to London, hoping to reclaim his life—especially his wife and daughter—only to find that it is all lost. In despair, he turns toward ever more desperate measures to seek revenge. Below Todd's old barber shop is a meat-pie shop owned by Mrs. Lovett, who is first to pronounce her wares "The Worst Pies in London." Todd's murderous ambitions and Mrs. Lovett's need for fresh ingredients to fill her meat pies lead to a perfectly sinister business partnership—a partnership Mrs. Lovett hopes will flourish beyond business.

Peter Rothstein, co-founder of Theater Latté Da, has directed Sweeney Todd in a manner that appears layered, with scenes overlapping in the same playing space, though it is always clear where each character is at every moment, and the overlay of action, sometimes of dialogue or song, always make sense. It is performed with urgency, as if there isn't a moment to lose, once the story catches fire, everything must be seen, heard, and done to reach the hair-raising ending before the whole thing is consumed in flames. Music director Denise Prosek (Latté Da's other co-founder) draws a richly orchestrated (original orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick) accompaniment to the mayhem. With just four musicians—herself on piano, plus strings, woodwinds and percussion, Prosek does full justice to Sondheim's soaring and swirling melodies.

Mark Benninghofen plays Sweeney Todd in what is, amazingly, his first musical role. Benninghofen is a skilled actor, excelling in comedy and serious drama alike. His Sweeney Todd veers to the dramatic, as he, who has been so cruelly wronged, becomes the author of his own final destruction. Benninghofen's gravelly voice is well suited for this part, and he uses it to stirring effect on such dramatic high points as "My Friends" and "Epiphany." He also brings a sense of glee to his comic macabre duet with Mrs. Lovett, "A Little Priest," in which their "business model" is sealed.

As Mrs. Lovett, Sally Wingert delivers another superb performance, manically shifting between romantic, sinister, and practical frames of mind. She creates a wonderful sense of believing herself to be in full control, while making clear to anyone watching that she has completely lost her grip. Wingert taps into the delicious vein of humor running through Mrs. Lovett, as in the jaunty "By the Sea," yet also gives us a glimpse of her loneliness and her capacity for tenderness. As for her singing, like Mr. Benninghofen, Ms. Winger has a throaty sound that suits well her character's years of fruitless labor and self-deception. Wingert and Benninghofen performed together this past spring in the two-hander Shooting Star at Park Square Theater and in June shared the stage in the cast of Juno and the Paycock at the Guthrie. They play off one another beautifully.

Also shining in this cast are Tyler Michaels as Tobias Ragg, the ragged and naïve boy who becomes kind of a pet cause for Mrs. Lovett. Michaels plays the part with wide eyed innocence, then reveals the genuine horror as he begins to guess the truth. He beautifully sings what is probably the best known song from Sweeney Todd, "Not While I'm Around," revealing the character's simple but sincere heart. Sarah Ochs plays The Beggar Woman, an important part, but one that is usually presented primarily as a device. Ochs manages to flesh out genuine feeling in the role, and also sings the part in beautiful voice.

Dominique Wooten lifts the role of Beadle Bamford with his powerful tenor, heard to great advantage in "Ladies in Their Sensitivities" and "Parlour Songs." Elizabeth Hawkinson plays Johanna, the daughter Todd has not seen in fifteen years, making Johanna half-mad with fear and confusion, as befits her circumstance. She brings her beautiful soprano to the role, with an especially lovely "Green Finch and Linnet Bird." Somewhat disappointing is Matthew Rubbelke as Anthony Hope, the earnest young sailor who rescued Todd, then, by chance, happens upon and promptly falls in love with Johanna. Rubbelke does not project enough intensity in his feelings to convince us he will risk everything for Johanna, or that Johanna would so readily be enthralled with him.

All the other roles are well played, including James Ramlet terrifically sleazy as Judge Turpin and Evan Tyler Wilson comically foppish as the barber Pirelli. The entire cast form a terrific ensemble on Sondheim's rich choral pieces, which include "Pirelli's Miracle Elixir," "God, That's Good," "City on Fire," and the gloriously macabre "Ballad of Sweeney Todd," which both opens and closes the show.

The set, designed by Kate Sutton-Johnson, assembles Victorian-era industrial waste into platforms connected by ladders, catwalks, and a swinging bridge. Sweeney's barber shop sits high in the center, while the bits of Mrs. Lovett's shop and private rooms, Johanna's quarters, the market square, and other settings mingle together across the stage. Johnson also makes use of the auditorium in clever ways. Alice Fredrickson's costumes have a ragged look, even on the finery worn by would-be respectable characters. Mrs. Lovett's black and white striped skirt especially suits her two-faced nature. The light and sound designs (Paul Whitaker and Jacob M. Davis, respectively) are top drawer. A piercing factory whistle and blinding flash of light announce each murder, a chilling effect that spares us the mess of stage blood, but not the feeling of dread that mounts as the story progresses.

I have seen several Sweeney Todds, so the story held no surprises for me. Still, I was constantly engrossed, all my senses alert to the words, music, and array of wit and imagination Sondheim and Wheeler have unleashed in Sweeney Todd, in tandem with brilliant presentation being given by Theater Latté Da. As the opening line says, "Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd," for once the first notes sound, there is no looking away.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street continues through October 25, 2015, at the Ritz Theater, 345 13th Avenue NE, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: $35.00 - $45.00. For tickets call 612-339-3303 or go to theaterlatteda.com.

Music and Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim; Book: Hugh Wheeler, from an adaptation by Christopher Bond; Orchestrations: Jonathan Tunick; Director: Peter Rothstein; Musical Director: Denise Prosek; Set Design and Associate Director: Kate Sutton-Johnson; Lighting Design: Paul Whitaker; Costume Design: Alice Fredrickson; Sound Design and Engineer: Jacob M. Davis; Hair and Makeup Design: Paul Bigot; Dialect Coach: Keely Wolter; Properties Master: Benjamin Olsen; Technical Director: Stein Rosburg; Stage Manager: Tiffany K. Orr; Assistant Stage Manager: April Harding; Production Manager: Dylan Wright

Cast: Mark Benninghofen (Sweeney Todd), Benjamin Dutcher (Jonas Fogg), Elizabeth Hawkinson (Johanna), Tyler Michaels (Tobias Ragg), Sara Ochs (Beggar Woman), James Ramlet (Judge Turpin), Matthew Rubbelke (Anthony Hope), Evan Tyler Wilson (Pirelli), Sally Wingert (Mrs. Lovett), Dominique Wooten (Beadle Bamford).


Photo: George Byron Griffiths


- Arthur Dorman


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