Don’t Be Afraid of Human Race’s Sweeney Todd
Posted On June 23, 2017
Review by Ken Stern of Sweeney Todd: Human Race Theatre
If you know “The Ballad Of Sweeney Todd,” he whose “skin was pale and his eye was odd”, and Stephen Sondheim’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 Dayton’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 society’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. Sondheim’s vision, and Hugh Wheeler stage adaptation of Christopher Bond’s 1970 play, creates a believable tale of palpable motivation for Sweeney Todd’s actions. The play is two dimensional, but suspend your disbelief. It’s a play, not a biography.
The cast is uniformly good, made better by spot-on period costuming (Costumer Janet G. Powell’s results are spectacular) and what must be an inside joke of superb hair styles: Aaron Vega’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 Steele’s Anthony Hope is the sailor we all want to steal away our daughters. And DJ Plunkett’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 “Not While I’m Around.” 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 Time‘s 1979 Broadway opening review, terming it “a powerful, coruscating [sparkling] instrument, this muscular partnership of words and music.” Listen, and hear for yourself.
On stage, Scott Stoney’s direction matches his production team’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. Lovett’s pie shop (where she initially bakes “The Worst Pies In London”) and the second floor starts as Todd’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 Todd’s dirty deeds to the pie shop’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 Lovett’s and Todd’s new duds), clamor for more, singing “God That’s Good.” From there the Horatio Alger plot becomes more melodramatic, moving (and stage spinning) lively to Sweeney’s Todd final shave—his own.
The audience loved it. This Human Race Theatre production delivers.