Sweeney Todd:The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Michael Van Duzer Reviews - Theater

Entering the mainstage at South Coast Repertory for its production of Stephen Sondheim’s macabre musical masterpiece, Sweeney Todd, one is greeted by a stage outfitted with footlights and a painted backdrop. It is immediately apparent that director Kent Nicholson has chosen a 19th Century theatrical vision for the piece.

The choice is entirely appropriate. Despite original director Harold Prince’s concept of the Industrial Revolution as the animus behind this tale of betrayal, revenge, and involuntary cannibalism, audiences thrill to the shock value of Sweeney’s twisted tale. It's the same delicious shock that made the demon barber a perennial favorite in the illustrated pages of the Penny Dreadfuls. Even Sondheim’s quasi-operatic score and lyrics shift effortlessly between horror and the low comedy of the Music Hall.

Nicholson’s theatrical conceit works well in conveying the story, celebrating the low-tech effects, and particularly in making sense of most of the principals doubling for what would be chorus roles in a more traditional production. It is less persuasive in creating dimensional characters.

Until Ibsen, 19th Century theatre performance style was broad, outsized, and only glancingly concerned with psychological acuity. Using these big and bold stylistic choices in a post-modern musical feels initially invigorating. But, as Sweeney’s story grows increasingly dark, the flashy bombast grows repetitive and eventually flattens out. This is particularly true of David St. Louis’ vengeful Sweeney and Jamey Hood’s loopy Mrs. Lovett, who are so extreme from their first appearance that they have practically nowhere to go.

Both performers have the dramatic heft and the musical talent to play these roles. But the production doesn’t offer them the opportunity to explore much in the way of emotional color or vocal variety. What it does offer is the chance for some of the supporting players to stand out in a way they might not in a different production.

Devin Archer’s full-voiced Anthony is suitably ardent and believably innocent, while Juliana Hansen as his beloved Johanna displays a bit more grit than usual. Conlan Ledwith makes a singularly lithe and graceful Tobias who readily embodies the emotional heart of the story. Erica Hanrahan-Ball’s Beggar Woman is alternately brazen and pathetic, but she commands the stage whenever she appears. A scene-stealing Roland Rusinek easily tosses off Pirelli’s punishing tessitura while strutting about as a delightfully pompous mountebank of Dickensian proportions.

Robert Mammana and Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper are talented performers who throw themselves into the villainous roles of Judge Turpin and his Beadle. But both men are so intrinsically likable that neither ever appear as repellant as they might. They also receive little help from Nicholson’s choice to push the script’s black comedy to a broader comedic take on the material which tends to de-fang the show’s danger factor.

Music Director David O works his usual magic with his small band and does an even better job of masking the missing chorus by making those hard-working principals sound anything but anemic.

Perhaps the most unique element in this production is the reinstatement of several musical moments which have been rarely heard since the original Broadway production. The touring production, which was filmed at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, had already cut the tooth-pulling sequence and the “Parlor Songs,” and these cuts became standard. It is a pleasure to see them back where they belong.

South Coast Repertory Theatre  January 26 – February 16. 2019   www.scr.org