Lawrence Arts Center renders near-perfect “Sweeney Todd”
“Sweeney Todd” is one of those shows that is very easy to make a mess of. The music is difficult – a typical Stephen Sondheim score with amelodic songs featuring tongue-twister, machine-gun-style lyrics. The characters are over the top and larger than life. And the story – about a bloody-minded barber who slaughters his customers and then has his landlady bake them into meat pies – is grisly. It’s very, very easy for “Sweeney Todd” to be an epic disaster.
Not only does the Lawrence Arts Center’s new production avoid all the potential pitfalls of Sondheim’s most challenging musical, it excels, offering first-rate, ghoulish entertainment just in time for Halloween.
The story concerns Sweeney Todd (Mark Rector), a wrongfully deported barber, who has snuck back into London with a new identity. He was exiled when the sinister and lascivious Judge Turpin (Patrick Kelly) coveted Todd’s beautiful wife and then raped her once Todd was out of the way. Ashamed and aggrieved, she committed suicide and Todd’s then-one-year-old daughter Johanna was adopted by Turpin.
It’s now 17 years later and Johanna (Julia Geisler) is a beautiful young woman. Her singing draws the attention and affection of a young sailor, Anthony (Joe Winans), the same man who helped Sweeney Todd return to London. But Turpin is not only a strict, unforgiving guardian, he harbors lust for Johanna of his own, and he conspires with policeman Beadle (Alex Goering) to thwart the young lovers.
Meanwhile, Sweeney sets up shop above Mrs. Lovett’s Meat Pies, hoping to draw the judge to his shop, so he can take his revenge. In the interim, he slits the throat of any customer he thinks won’t be missed, and Mrs. Lovett (Jill Anderson) bakes the remains into her pies, which become wildly popular.
If it sounds gruesome it is, but, despite promising theater in the bloody, Grand-Guignol style, director Ric Averill resists the urge to go over the top with gore. Instead, he recognizes that “Sweeney Todd” is a morality play and allows it to play out at its own pace. The tension between the various parties builds slowly. The audience knows this is a show about a barber slitting throats, but we don’t get the first murder until the first act is nearly over. In the second act, when the body count starts rising, Todd kills casually, without any passion as he sings about the memory of his daughter. Despite each victim being bloodied by Todd’s razor, Averill doesn’t spray the stage. It’s all very low-key.
And that’s good, because it allows the horror of the story to come to the forefront. Averill recognizes drenching the stage in gore would obscure where the true depravity lies – in the actions of its characters. Todd is perhaps justified in his desire to take revenge on Turpin and his accomplice Beadle, but he allows himself to become a butcher, killing anyone who comes through his shop and reveling in his deeds. Turpin is the worst kind of moralist. He easily condemns those less fortunate than he for their sins, but commits worse degeneracy himself. Mrs. Lovett is willing to be Todd’s accomplice, because she is in love with him and he is boosting her business.
There are few likable characters in “Sweeney Todd,” and those that are meet with bad ends or suffer terribly. And the sinister thing about the show is we become engrossed in it – wondering when Todd will commit another murder, will he and Mrs. Lovett get caught (and hoping they don’t), and whether Turpin will actually marry Johanna. It’s a fiendish story that plays on the worst aspects of human nature, making us simultaneously desire justice and hope for the villains to get away with what they do.
Averill’s direction isn’t the only thing that makes “Sweeney Todd” succeed on so many levels. The performances by the actors are top-notch across the board. Anderson gives a deliciously insane performance as Mrs. Lovett. She nails both the London accent and the desperation of a poor woman willing to do anything for love and money. She is comically perfect in “The Worst Pies in London”, naively adoring in “By the Sea” and terrified in “Not While I’m Around.” Kelly is frightening as Judge Turpin. Describing him as creepy doesn’t do justice to the profound depravity he displays. In particular, there is a scene of self-flagellation that would earn the show an R-rating all by itself were this a movie.
Winans and Geisler are beautiful in the only two truly sympathetic roles in the show. Both have angelic voices that stop the show with their beauty. Geisler’s lilting soprano melts hearts in “Green Finch and Linnet Bird”, and Winans sings so beautifully in “Johanna” one wishes the song would never end.
Any production of “Sweeney Todd”, though, has to be judged by the man in the titular role. Ironically, Rector has the weakest voice in the cast. He sings fine, but he can’t match the sound of his co-stars. It doesn’t matter, though. His performance is so intense, so horrific, he demands to be watched whenever he is onstage. The intensity of his obsession burns in his eyes. It’s clear that, no matter what is happening around him, Todd is only concerned with avenging himself on Judge Turpin.
Rector’s makeup enhances the effect. His face is washed out with white, and there are steaks of red, sinking his cheeks and skull. He looks dead, a zombie who died years before when he was exiled but is still animated by his need for revenge.
Mary Nichols gives us a beautiful, two-level set complete with a trap door-chute for Todd to deposit his victims down. Steffani Day’s costumes are gorgeous. London of the 19th Century comes alive in horrific glory under the technical direction of Heather Branham Green.
“Sweeney Todd” is a taut, bloody thriller that has a lot to say about human nature and the way we treat each other. Director Ric Averill, musical director Patricia Ahearn, and a sterling cast render a strong, entertaining performance of an extremely difficult work.