Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Words and music by Stephen Sondheim; book by Hugh Wheeler
Directed by Ryan Haase
Presented by Stillpointe Theatre Initiative at Area 405 through May 10
A quick glimpse of the audacity and verve director Ryan Haase packs into Stillpointe Theatre Initiative's Sweeney Todd production can be found in the sucker-punch performance of Zachary Tallman as Tobias, the mentally challenged street urchin who is taken under the wing of pie-maker Mrs. Lovett. Tallman looks a mess: He's got a skinhead-girlfriend's haircut, all shaved sides and floppy bangs that are jerked around by his head like a spastic Pomeranian. When he's seated onstage he seems to be lost in a complicated place of his mind's own creation, like Crispin Glover in Wild at Heart. And when he sings "Pirelli's Miracle Elixir," trying to hawk the hair tonic of his initial employers, he does so in an almost impenetrably pinched nasal squeak that makes you think he grew up learning to speak from Guy Ritchie movies. But in the second act, when it's time for Tobias to sing "Not While I'm Around" to Mrs. Lovett, Tallman opens his mouth and the sound is enough to make the angels weep.
The song is absolutely supposed to land that kind of emotional wallop, of course, but pulling it off is easier said than done. Sondheim is a monster of musical theater, which has to appeal to a more conservatively broad audience than even pop music, but there's nothing easy about his intricate productions. Stillpointe uses Area 405's loading dock as a stage, with one setup used for the entire play (subtle lighting changes suggest time and location shifts). The cast is a compact group of 16 performers. And the musical accompaniment is provided by a quintet of cello, clarinet, keyboards, flute, and violin (music direction provided by Stacey Antoine). This Sweeney Todd is ambitious Broadway-pop on a DIY-theater scale, and how Haase and company pull it off is clever and impressive.
For those unfamiliar, Sweeney Todd is a Victorian-age penny dreadful that follows the titular barber (Bobby Libby) who returns to London having escaped a 15-year penal transportation sentence and sets his sights on revenge. He targets Judge Turpin (Will Carson), who sentenced him and then raped his wife (who subsequently took her own life), and then took Todd's daughter, Johanna, as his own (and creepily plans to make her his bride). Todd decides both Judge and his right-hand henchman, Beadle Bamford (Tariq Al-Sabir), are to be offed, but he needs to find the right opportunity. He takes a room above Mrs. Lovett (Amanda J. Rife), the maker of the "worst pies in London" (think: made of cat, rat, or whatever she can get her hands on), and they soon establish a mutually beneficial relationship. Todd can slit the throats of transients who won't be missed; she can grind them up into meat; and soon, her pies are the hottest ticket in town.
It's a wonderfully macabre story line for Sondheim's sprightly, hummable songs, and Stillpointe has a blast making it claustrophobic. A narrator (Ken Jordan) is added to recite stage directions and clarifying scene details, and he's sitting on the same floor as the audience and slumped over his desk when the house opens, giving the play the whiff of a fever dream. The entire company enters for the opening "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" and, for the most part, they stay there, taking seats on an old couch and chairs set up stage right. Costume designer Anna Tringali dresses everybody as if they are slightly disheveled upmarket goths. They take their seats, and their faces wear expressions of extreme boredom mixed with desperate need. The effect is like the entire cast exited that terminally hip club from the opening credits of Tony Scott's The Hunger and strolled over to wait around with everybody else who isn't doing much about the murder in the Velvet Underground's "Sister Ray."
This casual attitude toward killing (and cannibalism) is echoed in the musical's priceless "A Little Priest"-"The history of the world, my sweet/ is who gets eaten, and who gets to eat"-and Libby and Rife nail the number's vaudevillian tone and winking puns. It's this sideline to the debauchery that Stillpointe's Sweeney Todd smartly capitalizes on. This musical tends to skew big, enthusiastically embracing the "grand" in Grand Guignol. Haase and company go intimate, which makes sense for an unamplified singing-and fortunately Libby can belt out his baritone, and he impressively carries the production-and a small musical ensemble. It also provides for some disarmingly stunning moments of staging. In the beginning of the second act, when Todd and Mrs. Lovett have their operation running swimmingly, Todd executes a string of female victims the production dubs the "ladies of sensitivity." One by one they take a seat in his chair wearing a barber's bib, he slices and pushes them through a door, and they return through a different door, their throats slit, their eye glassy, and return to their seats onstage. Afterward, each applies white makeup to her face during the scene, and soon, you realize that more dead characters are starting to hang around onstage than live ones, and it sinks in how absolutely bloody this easy-to-sing-along-to musical really is.
The whole production is peppered with these subtle touches-made to handle a big production in a small space (and on a smaller budget)-that become dramatically potent nuances. The Beggar Woman (a solid Erin Adams) hangs just offstage for most of the play, transforming into that person asking for changing that you don't even see anymore. Dressing Johanna (Zoe Kanter and her powerful soprano) in a white wig and shabby-chic white dress not only visually sets her off from the rest of the cast and stage's dour proceedings, but also gives her an almost spectral appearance, as if what she represents for Todd-his previous life-is more dream than possibility. And with the bodies actually piling up, this scrappy company has baroquely turned its stage into a domestic crime scene. It's a commitment-it runs about two and a half hours-but one worth every second.