Sweeney Todd

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Stephen Sondheim’s dark masterpiece “Sweeney Todd” is not an easy show to do, but UVSC has pulled it off pretty well.

Set 150 years ago in London, the musical tells of the barber Sweeney Todd (Andrew McKee) who has just come back to town after being falsely imprisoned by the evil Judge Turpin (Mark Wilson). Seems the judge took a fancy to Sweeney’s wife and needed to get rid of hubby so he could have her to himself. Well, Sweeney’s pretty ticked off now — even moreso because his wife is dead and their daughter, Johanna (Amber Edson), is now in Turpin’s clutches.

His plan of action is to kill the judge and his sidekick, the jovial (but apparently still evil) Beadle (Cameron Cahoon) by luring them to his barbershop and then slitting their throats. But as anyone who has ever committed vengeful murders can tell you, plans tend to go awry, and this is no exception: Sweeney decides to take revenge on the entire town instead. Now, any man who wanders into the shop, Sweeney kills ’em. What’s more, he slides the bodies downstairs to Mrs. Lovett’s (Courtney Young) bakery, where they are made into meat pies.

Most of the music is in a minor key and almost tuneless; the plot is macabre; the main character is indefensibly twisted and arguably more evil than the people he sought revenge after — it’s the feel-good hit of the season! You can see why it’s difficult to make a show like this enjoyable.

But UVSC succeeds pretty well. A solid performance from McKee as Sweeney helps tremendously. The makeup makes his eyes seem hollow and sunk back into his head — he almost looks like the monster he is. But he has a winning smile, almost belying the insanity that lurks beneath and giving the character dimension. Young’s Mrs. Lovett is wonderful, giving the show life, variety and a little comic relief. Sweeney and Lovett have a marvelous chemistry together as she initially goads him on and then tries gamely to bring him back from the brink of disaster.

Edson’s Johanna and Joseph Stone’s Anthony (Johanna’s suitor) have fabulous singing voices and make their subplot — the only glimmer of hope in the show — stand out.

The main problem with the production is sound. The actors aren’t miked, and they are often drowned out by the 10-piece orchestra (led admirably by Sean Jackson). In a show that is almost all singing, and much of it intricately rhymed, we need to be able to hear every word.

The show is not for everyone, perhaps. The man behind me at Saturday’s performance said it was “morbid” (he said this in a regular speaking voice, by the way, and several times throughout the show, which made me wonder if he was raised in a place — perhaps on a foreign planet — where talking out loud during a theater production is acceptable). Morbid may not be the right word, but it is a little disturbing (although, frankly, I was more bothered by the guy behind me talking incessantly than I was by the play’s content).

But ultimately, the dark themes are necessary to make the point: that revenge and hate can consume a person. It’s a powerful message, and one that can only be driven home effectively through extreme measures. “Sweeney Todd” does have its fun, light moments — watch Sweeney sing sweetly about Johanna’s beauty as he slits men’s throats, for example — and it’s not oppressively dreary. It’s an enjoyable theater experience, performed well by the UVSC cast.

You know my feelings about people talking during shows anyway. But when what they're saying is ignorant and narrow-minded, it's even more annoying. The guy in the "Sweeney Todd" audience seemed to enjoy the show more in the second act -- when Sweeney started killing lots of people. I heard the man chuckle a couple times, even. If I'd had a razor with me....

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