If ever there were a terrifying piece of musical theater, it’s Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” Terrifying for its gruesome storyline about murder, revenge and cannibalism, yes; and terrifying for its sheer magnitude for the artists who put it together.
With beautifully complex orchestrations, wickedly smart and often lovely lyrics, extraordinary narrative sophistication largely through song, fascinatingly twisted characters, and violent action that’s a challenge to illustrate visually, it’s a tremendous undertaking, and when done well, one of the great works of art to appear on stage.
This is exactly how it is delivered at The Barn Theatre — as a terrific achievement, with every challenge, every bit of complexity met with aplomb and grace.
Under Hans Friedrichs’ masterful direction this “Sweeney Todd" is a force. Rich with texture, the show is visually delightful, musically stunning, and every character on stage is spectacular thanks to excellent casting and marvelous performances.
To “attend the tale of Sweeney Todd” as the Greek chorus of Londoners darkly sing as a forewarning in the opening number is to witness the remarkable adaptation of a Victorian “penny dreadful.” Mayhem befalls London after the titular character’s return after being wrongly convicted and sent to an Australian prison. Tormented by his obsession to seek revenge on the Judge who lusted after his wife and assumed custody of his daughter after he was exiled, Todd takes up his old razors and sets up a barber shop where he slits throats amid giving shaves, and teams up with Mrs. Lovett, proprietor of the meat pie shop downstairs, to dispose of the bodies and transform “the worst pies in London” into a bustling business selling tasty, tender treats to unassuming customers who clamor for more.
The actors who play Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett are the heart of the production, and historically have been played by Broadway greats (Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury, Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone, to name a few). Here, beloved guest artist Robert Newman and longtime Barn leading lady Penelope Alex are a wonderful pairing in these fabulous roles.
He is a powerful presence from the jump; with piercing ice-blue eyes and deep voice, his Todd is more haunted than demonic, which makes him sympathetic as well as frightening. Alex is an astounding Mrs. Lovett, as richly layered as her phenomenally colorful costumes (designed by Michael Wilson Morgan), full of longing and wile, she’s hilarious, beautiful and weird, and her singing has never sounded better. She’s a force, and with Newman, they draw every bit of comedy and depth from this script and score — and these marvelous characters. Their “A Little Priest” is a scream, a wonderful bit of levity that emerges after the strange tenderness of Newman’s “Epiphany.”
Their darkness is contrasted beautifully by Jonnie Carpathios’s warm, bright, yet naive Anthony Hope, whose “Johanna” is as sweet and pure as his love and that song are meant to be for Todd’s daughter, played like a lovely songbird by Cosette Smith.
The two of them, with John Jay Espino as a terrifyingly creepy Judge Turpin and Patrick Hunter as a marvelously manipulative Beadle Bamford who sings like a dream, create one of the finest vocal numbers in the show in “Quartet.”
Melissa Cotton Hunter is all in and utterly convincing as the tragic Beggar Woman, a
lascivious crone gone mad; and Jimmy Damore is wonderfully earnest as sweet simpleton Tobias Ragg. They’re both standout performances by actors who aren’t obviously physically suited to the roles but make them perfectly spectacular.
Also perfectly spectacular is Brent Decker’s music direction and eight-piece orchestra who plays with tremendous intensity; Steven Lee Burroughs’s behemoth of a set, wonderfully textured, creatively malleable and with moving, rotating parts that create a variety of angles and spaces, allowing for various parts of the story to play out seamlessly and with a necessary largesse that make the impossibly small stage at The Barn seem downright vast.
That stage, rich with a huge (and hugely talented) cast — including an ensemble that moves like the Greek chorus it needs to be thanks to Jamey Grisham’s thoughtful, angular choreography — is transformed by this twisted thriller that’s totally haunting, entertaining and so very impressive in its emotional reach and musical genius. One of the great works of art to appear on stage, indeed.