Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Also see Richard's review of Sex with Strangers
Film director Billy Wilder once quoted another director, Ernst Lubitsch, as saying "give (the audience) two and two and let them add it up. They're going to do it for you. And they're going to have fun with it."
So it is with the outstanding Stray Dog Theatre production of Sweeney Todd, Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's grand, gothic, and ghastly musical (from 1979), already said to be nearly sold-out for its entire run. Director Justin Been gradually ferries us to the final, climactic minutes, where everything just naturally fits together, in the most horrifying way imaginable, but still, "naturally"if, by "naturally" you mean that a man wrongly accused ends up destroying everything around him, in an impossible-to-turn-away-from, Wagnerian spectacle.
At the performance I attended, the whole audience was as frozen and mesmerized as any I've ever seen, making the characters on stage seem more real than any of us by comparison, in that final fateful scene. We no longer had to be told what the stakes were, we had put it all together ourselves, to our everlasting dread and torment. And we love director Been for letting it happen just that way.
Everyone brings their "A" game, all the way down the line. Local actors who have grown accustomed to filling secondary or character roles magically turn in leading man/leading lady-quality work at every moment under this director. Powerful, visually dominating Jonathan Hey can afford to be a looming, brooding and iconic figure in the title role, surrounded (as he is) by a long list of memorable madmen and monsters (and sometimes both in the same person).
Lavonne Byers is Mrs. Lovett, who inspires the process of Sweeney Todd's revenge. Ms. Byers has had so many leading lady roles of her own over the last 35 years, that her Lovett can easily navigate here between antic disposition and desperate plotting and music hall love-song, as her meat pie shop goes from dismal failure to horrifying success.
Real life husband and wife Gerry and Kay Love are Judge Turpin and the Beggar Woman: he, strangely naturalistic and tormented and self-deluded, as a hanging judge who hopes to marry his own lovely ward; and she, unexpectedly artful (like Ms. Byers) alternating between the character's street job and the frantic madness of the song "City On Fire."
Mike Wells gives a breakout performance as Beadle Bamford, graciously tugging his forelock for Judge Turpin, bullying the young hero of the story, and singing beautifully as he threatens to ruin Sweeney's final attempt at his own kind of justice. He is a delightful annoyance in a world that has forgotten how to be teased. And Tyler Cheatem is fabulous as a competing barber, Pirelli, challenging the dangerous Sweeney in a genuinely exciting competition, and later trying to extort Sweeney's earnings in a bloody barbershop.
Joanna, the youthful ward here (the damsel in distress, in London of 1843), is played by lovely Eileen Engel, whose glass-shattering high notes add sparkle to the big frantic crowd numbers, and Cole Gutmann is perfect as the young hero Anthony, searching the city streets for her after a breathtaking plot-twist right before intermission. Connor Johnson is likewise excellent as Tobias, the street urchin who goes from Mr. Pirelli to the custody of Mrs. Lovett.
It really is a penny dreadful, as 19th century stories go, but thanks to Stephen Sondheim and librettist Hugh Wheeler (from an adaptation by Christopher Bond), and now thanks to director Been, it all just grabs you by the throat and won't let go. And this is very nearly a perfect production. But if you must insist on a dash of negative criticism to leaven the loaf, I'll mention that Mr. Johnson and Ms. Byers must each briefly straddle awkwardly, in their earliest scenes, between their upper registers and falsetto voices, because of the music and their own God-given voices. But they right themselves very quickly, backed-up by a flawless group of musicians under the direction of bandleader Chris Petersen.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street through April 22, 2017, at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave. For more information visit www.straydogtheatre.org.