(To the reader: This review of “Sweeney Todd” contains numerous bad puns relating to the subject matter, as mandated by Theater Critic’s Code. Please excuse us.)
Perhaps the most dark and horrifying musical ever written, Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is also widely considered to be one of the best musicals ever written.
Why, you ask? Well, aside from that tuneless, well-crafted music that is so typically Sondheim-ian, and aside from the morbidly fascinating characters, and aside from the far-reaching moral issues presented — aside from all this, “Sweeney Todd” is about a man who slits people’s throats and bakes them into meat pies.
How can a show like that NOT be one of the best musicals ever written?
It may not suit everyone’s tastes (get it?!), but it sure is well-written.
Pioneer Theatre Company’s current production of the 18-year-old musical attempts to reach the dark depths called for by the script and score, and while it doesn’t entirely succeed, it certainly revels in the creepiness it does achieve. You like dark meat? There’s plenty here.
The show starts off promisingly enough. Rob Odorisio’s set design is huge and magnificent, and Peter L. Willardson’s lighting design — which is so complicated as to involve four light technicians actually onstage, tucked away in the corners — does wonders for creating an atmosphere of darkness and terror.
Not long after the show actually begins, however, it gets bogged down. The opening scene is appropriately chilling and moody, with cast members singing of the terrible deeds to come, but it takes a while for things to really get moving. We meet Sweeney Todd (Michael Medeiros), fresh out of prison on a trumped-up charge, and find him looking for revenge against the man who stole his wife, drove her to suicide, and who now has custody of Todd’s daughter, Johanna (Susan Spencer). Todd meets up with Mrs. Lovett (Mary Ellen Ashley), a plump, shrill woman who makes the worst meat pies in London (“worst meat pies” may be a redundancy, actually), and she agrees to help him get back on his feet.
We also meet the “evil” Judge Turpin (Robert Peterson) and his toadie, the Beadle (Michael Mandell). They are both bad — or at least, we are told that they are — and so the stage is set for what could be quite a delicious tale of revenge and darkness.
Two things get in the way, however. First, the show slows waaaaay down about 30 minutes into the 90-minute first act, and doesn’t recover until just before intermission. Things manage to keep moving throughout the second act, but that slow stretch at the beginning tends to sit in your stomach like a bad meat pie.
The other problem, unfortunately, is Todd himself. Medeiros’s portrayal of this all-important character is too obsessed and brooding. He spends all his time staring intently off into space, with an unfathomable Christopher Walken face on, and he has no levels. There’s no building with his character, no climaxes, no dimensions. He plays it so “deep” that it eventually becomes quite shallow, simply because it never changes. In short, his characterization, like some meat pies, is over-done, with no flavor left.
This has a domino effect on the rest of the show. First, it’s a contributing factor in the show’s too-heaviness in the first act, as you find yourself wishing he’d just get on with it and start killing people. Furthermore, Todd’s all-evil, non-sympathetic character causes Judge Turpin, who is SUPPOSED to be all-evil and non-sympathetic, to appear watered down by comparison. This makes the climax, when Todd finally gets his revenge on the Judge, go by with a mere shrug of the emotional shoulders, and the whole thing kind of collapses on itself at the end, when it should be tossing the audience’s emotions in the meat grinder.
Two cast members stand out and deserve special recognition. Mary Ellen Ashley’s Mrs. Lovett, a part originated on Broadway by Angela Lansbury, is delightful. Ashley acts with energy and gleefully wicked enthusiasm, bouncing around and singing like a cross between Lansbury and Edith Bunker, with a hint of Ethel Merman thrown in. She is a joy to watch.
The other is Tobias, played by Danny Gurwin. Not only does he have a great singing voice, but he also gives perhaps the most sincere, heart-renching performance of the entire cast. He alone saves the final scene from being a failure.
Obviously, this little barber shop of horrors is not for everyone. The deaths, of which there are many, range from the comical to the graphic, and there is a bit of foul language.
But despite this, and despite the flaws discussed above, the show is worth seeing. It would be hard to mess up a play written this well, and the PTC production doesn’t really fall too short.
I had a lot of fun writing this review, because I got to make lots of dumb jokes (most of which got cut out in publication, but so what?). I saw the play with my pal Chris Bentley, who loves "Sweeney Todd" and has seen it a thousand times, and he had several insights to offer. For example, he had a vague idea of where the TGI Friday's in Salt Lake City was.