Like its literary predecessor, the1846 Penny Dreadful The String of Pearls: A Romance, the musical version of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street tells the tale of a vengeful barber who dispatches his victims with a straight razor and dumps them into the basement, where his accomplice Mrs. Lovett bakes them into pies in her pie shop.
The story of dubious pies of unknown origin was popular enough in London of the 1840s to earn two references by Dickens, and the story, once written, took hold in the popular imagination taking on the mythic proportion of an urban legend and spawning a number of stage adaptations. In the Victorian Era thriller plays, Sweeney was wholly evil, murderous and mad with no real motive beyond a lust for blood.
It wasn’t until 1973, that the urban myth of Sweeney Todd was given more complexity by British playwright Christopher Bond. He was the first to give Sweeney a sympathetic backstory, that of a man wronged by a corrupt judge, returning from Australian transportation to seek revenge. The judge coveted Sweeney’s wife, raped her and stole their daughter, raising her as his ward, sending Sweeney off to prison on a trumped-up charge.
It is on this version of Sweeney Todd that Stephen Sondheim based his musical version, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. A Musical Thriller first performed on Broadway in 1979. And it’s earned multiple Tonys for that version and in revivals since, and there’s a reason.
With more than 80 percent of the play sung or set to music, Sweeney Todd is an incredible challenge to perform for both orchestra and actors. The Paramount production ably directed by Jim Corti delivers all of it in a way to make you want more, just like the patrons of Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop in “God. That’s Good!”
The Paramount production as designed by Jeffrey D. Kmiec has even seen fit to recreate the show’s original Hal Prince concept of Victorian-era industrial wasteland, creating a set design that is all metal, but with enough Victorian Era flourishes that it looks at once majestic and gothically grotesque. It also looks dingy and claustrophobic, like Victorian tenements huddled together under a sky dark with coal smoke. It is perfectly in keeping with Sweeney’s sentiment that “there’s a hole in the world like a big black pit, and it’s filled with people who are filled with shit and the vermin of the world inhabit it.”
The way the set is designed it looks sturdily industrial and rickety all at once and the set up for Mrs. Lovett’s ovens is genuinely scary, like a pit straight to hell.
Unlike the original stage adaptation, that still had some of the bright colors and high-spiritedness of the music hall, the Paramount’s Sweeney Todd is fully gothic. And not in the odd Tim Burton way, but in the old school Edward Gorey way, in fact, Edward Gorey’s cartoons could well have been the starting off point for the costuming of this production. The gorgeous costumes by Costume Designer Theresa Ham are grand sober brocades and wools in the dark tones of Victorian mourning, or worse still, banking. If it wasn’t for the somewhat wild wigs on the women, you’d think you’d stumbled into a funeral in 1886. The only pops of color come from a few props, Johanna’s virginal white, Mrs. Lovett’s costumes once she aspires to be posh, and a symbolic red scarf for Toby.
The lighting by Nick Belley and Jesse Klug also reinforces this design concept. The show is black and white and red all over.
But all the production design in the world doesn’t matter if the performances are not worthwhile, and this cast is all that you expect and more. To a person, including the chorus, they are superb singers and carry off the challenging score with aplomb. Some of the women of the chorus manage some high notes that are absolutely thrilling and they are not just filler. They’re well-staged and interesting and sing amazingly well. You enjoy the people of the chorus every time they appear.
The central performances are excellent. Every cast member with a named role is outstanding at what they do. I found Craig W. Underwood’s Beadle and Emily Rohm’s Beggar Woman especially made much of their roles and Larry Adams was a truly despicable Judge Turpin with both a smirking pompousness and equally smirking lechery that made you long for Sweeney to exact his revenge.
But enough good can’t be said of the central performances. Paul-Jordan Jansen as Sweeney Todd is menacing and angry and believeable as can be wished. His obsession is never in doubt. He’s obviously someone with an anger management issue that is only barely being held in check. And he sings magnificently. It’s a more powerful and commanding performance than many and it works tremendously in this production. You never get the idea that he’s mad. He’s obsessed and driven but in the sane, rational way of a fanatic exacting revenge, not the haphazard way of someone with a poor grip on sanity.
Bri Sudia as Mrs. Lovett. I hardly know what to say except that she’s the finest Mrs. Lovett I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen the entire performances by Angela Lansbury and Patti LuPone on film, not to mention Emma Thompson and Imelda Staunton. Sudia manages to not only sing gloriously, but she hits Lovett’s flightiness, desperation, worshipfulness and sentimentality, often all at once. It’s a remarkably complex performance and would be worth recommending this production for even if everything else was not to the incredibly high standard that it is. She is just truly exceptional.
And here’s an example of why. Sudia doesn’t just play Lovett as a crazed murderess as so many do. She’s someone who actually has human feelings and not just her one-note love for Mr. Todd. For example, her offhanded, self-serving kindness to Toby reads as genuine warmth. She’s willing to be kind and fuss over a boy not just to cover up the murder of his master, but because he’s a boy who seems underfed and in need of some fussing over and why not? The song, “Not While I’m Around” often seems to come from nowhere in this show because murderous Mrs.Lovetts haven’t earned Toby’s affection. Sudia has. You can see why Toby loves her and her regret at planning to kill him also seems genuine. Todd’s victims are just grist for the pie shop to her, but Toby she cares about. He’s hers. And while her selfish need for self-preservation will sacrifice him, it won’t be without at least momentary regret. And Sudia mines all this out of Sondheim’s text with nothing more than any other actor has had to work with.
It’s the same with the genuine pity she feels for the Beggar Woman. It doesn’t stop her doing what she wants, but she for certain understands the height of the Beggar Woman’s fall and despite her jealousy understands what suffering is when she sees it. There are some tremendous reactions there.
That’s far more than you get from the majority of Mrs. Lovetts, even when she’s played by great actors. Go see Sudia do this. It’s superb.
This entire production quite simply doesn’t set a foot wrong nor hit a note wrong. Unless you have a weak stomach. Because there is gore a-plenty with throat slittings occurring with regularity while in full view and facing the audience. A few people in the theatre with me covered their eyes when this happened. That is the only caveat.
Sweeney Todd plays from now through March 19th. Get your tickets at the Paramount Website.
Production photos by: Liz Lauren.
You can see the preview video here.