Bay Area theatre, Eureka Theatre, Grand Guinol, independent theatre, indie theatre, macabre, Michelle Jasso, musical, musical theatre, operetta, Ray of Light Theatre, San Francisco, San Francisco theatre, SFThtr, Stephen Sondheim, Sweeney Todd, theater review, theatre, Theatre review
“I used to dream I was in a musical…
‘cause in a musical nothing dreadful ever happens.”
–Selma Ježková, Dancer in the Dark
You know that wonderful moment when you’re young and you suddenly become aware of a world entertainment for grown-ups? It’s an epiphany, to be sure: a world of stories where couples get together not because they’re in love, but because they don’t want to spend the night in an empty bed; a world where people can take what they want and get away with; a world where – in ultimate defiance of what your parents told you at bedtime – the main characters can die and no one lives “happily ever after”.
I’ve always had a special place in my heart for Stephen Sondheim’s macabre musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, thanks in short part to its defiance of the conventional wisdom that all musicals should resemble The Wizard of OZ or Annie (two musicals I also hold very dear). No, Sweeney Todd exists in a world of unfair justice, unrepentant murder, and unbeknownst cannibalism. It is a story about a man who begins the story driven by one clear motive (revenge) and ends it with one just as unpleasant (regret). That’s why I love it. And yet, for all the times I’ve seen and heard it (I may re-watch and review Tim Burton’s 2007 film adaptation), this is the first time I’ve seen it live.
For those unfamiliar: the story begins with a former barber named Benjamin Barker returning to London after 15 years of false imprisonment in Australia. Now using the name “Sweeney Todd”, he seeks to dispatch the cruel judge who sent him away in an attempt to steal Barker’s wife.
Sweeney returns to his old shoppe to find it’s been all-but-abandoned, save for the ground floor bakery run by the eccentric Mrs. Lovett. Said bakery has fallen on hard times recently (Lovett herself admits to serving “The Worst Pies in London”). Recognising Todd as Barker, she informs him that his wife poisoned herself and his daughter is now in the care of the same cruel Judge Turpin that imprisoned Barker.
Whilst Sweeney’s compassion may have tempered in prison, his skill with a blade did not. In anticipation for his eventual meeting with the judge, he resolves to once again open his shoppe – not to shave his customers, but murder them so that their flesh may be used for Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies.
Ray of Light’s production makes creative use of limited space thanks to the abstract set design of Maya Linke. The set is reminiscent of a German Expressionist film. Not knowing beforehand that the story was set in London, the sight of a murderer with a painted “M” on his back wouldn’t seem out of place. A large circular “tunnel” representing Mrs. Lovett’s oven appropriately resembles some stone gateway to Hell. Equally atmospheric are the light design Cathie Anderson and the six-person orchestra hidden on the far sides of the stage.
The performances are something of a mixed bag. Adam Scott Campbell in the eponymous role seems to want to defy expectations of the role by playing Sweeney’s traditionally “large” scenes (such as “Epiphany”) with subtlety whilst playing his more traditionally subtle moments with grandeur. The result makes it hard to sympathise with the lead character. Campbell – despite reaching for the rafters during the “subtle” moments – never seems to fully let himself go; his performance is like a pot constantly boiling, but never boiling over.
Faring slightly better is Ken Brill as Judge Turpin, but he also suffers from making his character fully rounded and his voice isn’t the strongest to carry all over the theatre. In fact, a recurring problem with this production was the lack of microphones on the actors. It’s understandable that a director would want the actors’ own voices to resonate on their own power, but several of the actors’ voices were lost under the orchestra. None of the cast were bad singers, it was just hard to hear them a lot of the time.
The two strongest voices and performances come from the two female leads: Miss Sheldra and Michelle Jasso as the eccentric and optimistic Mrs. Lovett and the mad Beggar Woman, respectively. It’s all too easy for Mrs. Lovett to become shrill caricature, but Sheldra’s finds just the right balance between silliness and sadness; she is a woman whose life is as empty as her ovens, and the appearance of Sweeney immediately improves both. So too does Jasso bring a grounded humanity to the Beggar Woman, someone who has (justifiable) reason to believe everything good in her life has disappeared forever. As such, she has nothing to live for, but knows how to survive. Both women’s voices, particularly that of Jasso, carry clear over the orchestra.
Also worth noting are J. Conrad Frank’s wonderfully flamboyant portrayal of Beadle, Turpin’s right-hand man, and Matt Provencal as Anthony, the young man who would win the heart of young Johanna (Jessica Smith). The entire cast are effective enough in their roles, but several choices leave something to be desired.
I’m going to assume that these choices were made at the behest of director Ben Randle. The idea of killing the characters and then having them stand up and walk off-stage (with full light still on them) came off as uninspired. Also questionable was the choice to keep the body count low and the first brutal murder off-stage. I imagine Randle probably didn’t want to go too big too soon, but this is Sweeney Todd we’re talking about here – if the stage isn’t covered in crimson by the end of the show, then what’s the point?
All in all, this is clearly a production that full of people that realise the possibilities of the material, it just isn’t fully exploited. But don’t let that take away from the fact that Sondheim’s Grand Guignol musical is still the most fun you can watching someone get their throat slit.