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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by Hugh Wheeler
From an Adaptation by Christopher Bond
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
The Muny
July 17, 2022

Ben Davis, Carmen Cusack
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny has gone darker and grittier with its latest production, and it’s brilliant! Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is one of legendary composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s masterpieces, but it hadn’t been performed at the Muny before, and it’s taken a while for this production. First announced  for the eventually cancelled 2020 season and then postponed again after last year’s season was shortened, this production has been long-anticipated, and I’m glad to say it’s been well worth the wait. With first-class production values that use the vast Muny stage ideally, a sumptuous sounding full orchestra, and a wonderful cast, this is a production of a modern classic that brings all the intense energy with chilling results. 

This is a big production, as is fitting the huge stage at the Muny, and all the lavish production values are here, fitting the darker and more horror-themed tone with just the right blend of gritty realism and old-style theatrical thrill. The story, following revenge-minded barber Todd (Ben Davis) upon his return to London after many years exiled in Australia, is well-cast and expertly paced. All the well-known characters are here and impeccably cast, from Todd’s admirer and eventual partner-in crime, meat pie baker Mrs. Lovett (Carmen Cusack), to his arch-nemesis Judge Turpin (Robert Cuccioli), who lusted after Todd’s wife in the old days and, after had Todd exiled on trumped-up charges, has been raising the barber’s daughter Johanna (Riley Noland) and aims to marry her now that she’s older. There’s also Anthony Hope (Jake Boyd), a young sailor who rescues Todd on his way back from Australia and soon becomes enamored with Johanna. Todd, for his part, is fixated mostly on getting revenge on the judge and his accomplice, the weaselly Beadle Bamford (Stephen Wallem), while Mrs. Lovett has her own plans for Todd, and for her pie shop. It’s a complex and eventually gruesome tale with interweaving plotlines, callbacks, and clues that come together gradually at first, and then pick up speed in the second act, leading to a shocking but essentially inevitable conclusion. 

While the Muny has occasionally produced darker, more cynical shows like Chicago, and Little Shop of Horrors, Sweeney Todd heads into even grimmer territory, as anyone who knows the basic plot will realize, even if it takes most of Act 1 to get to the “meat” of the story (pun most definitely intended). All the intricate plotting leads to a fully realized story and a pace that becomes more brisk as the story plays out, and in the hands of director Rob Ruggiero, this Sweeney never misses a beat. With a marvelously detailed and dynamic set by Michael Schweikardt, detailed costumes by Alejo Vietti, chillingly evocative lighting by John Lasiter and striking video design by Caite Hevner, as well as a superb orchestra led by music director James Moore, this is an ideal Sweeney Todd for this venue.

Nothing is “too much”, either–it’s all what it needs to be, including an ideal cast, led by the charismatic, big-voiced Davis as the moody, vengeful Todd, who is well-matched scene-for-scene by the equally superb Cusack as the devoted, single-minded Mrs. Lovett. Cusack also has a great voice, along with good comic timing and lots of energy. Other standouts include Cuccioli and Wallem as the appropriately villainous Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford; Boyd and Noland as well-matched youthful lovers Anthony and Johanna; Lincoln Clauss as the young, impressionable Tobias Ragg, who gets taken in by Mrs. Lovett and comes to mistrust Todd; and Julie Hanson, in strong voice as the mysterious Beggar Woman who, in many ways, is the key to this whole story. There’s an excellent ensemble, as well, all in superb voice, singing Sondheim’s complex harmonies with energy and precision. 

So far, this is a remarkable season for the Muny, and this production just may be the best so far. It’s a long-awaited production (by me, anyway) that’s proven to be worth the hype. It’s a big, intense, emotional, well-cast, gloriously sung show that brings out all the chilling intensity that you would expect from Sweeney Todd. There’s much to think about here, and it’s not just blood and gore–and that aspect is done with just the right level of spectacle without being overly sensationalized. It’s not a show for all audiences, but if you know what to expect, this production delivers all the characterization, emotion, and intensity with much to think about, as well. It’s a true must-see at the Muny. 

Cast of Sweeney Todd
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is presenting Sweeney Todd in Forest Park until July 22, 2022

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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by Hugh Wheeler
From an Adaptation by Christopher Bond
Directed by Justin Been
Stray Dog Theatre
April 6, 2017

Lavonne Byers, Jonathan Hey
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Sweeney Todd is such a difficult show to do. Its complex story, ridiculously complicated rhythms, and its bleak and even brutal subject matter, blended with a dark sense of humor, make this musical a challenge, to say the least. Now Stray Dog Theatre, known for its ambitious musical productions, has risen to that challenge, staging a bold, thrilling, excellently cast production of this well-known musical.

The show is one of Stephen Sondheim’s most well-known works, and it’s also possibly his darkest. A re-telling of an old British legend of the “Demon Barber of Fleet Street”, the story fleshes out (pun intended) the barber’s backstory. Here, Sweeney Todd (Jonathan Hey), formerly known as Benjamin Barker, has just returned from 15 years of exile in Australia, where he was sent on trumped-up charges after running afoul of the corrupt, conniving and self-righteous Judge Turpin (Gerry Love), who had eyes for Barker’s wife, Lucy. Now returned to London, the world-weary Todd is bent on revenge, especially after he hears of his wife’s fate after Barker’s exile, and the fact that the judge has taken in and raised Barker’s daughter Johanna (Eileen Engel), and now has plans to marry her. Todd learns all this from the down-on-her-luck pie merchant Mrs. Lovett (Lavonne Byers), who has her own designs on Sweeney himself and assists him in establishing a new barber shop above her pie shop. When the Judge and his accomplice Beadle Bamford (Mike Wells) continue to evade Todd’s plots to exact revenge, his and Lovett’s plans grow even darker and more ambitious, and more gruesome, in ways that feed Todd’s desire for vengeance and the customers of Lovett’s increasingly successful pie shop. In the midst of all these machinations, Anthony Hope (Cole Gutmann), a young sailor who saves Todd from drowning on his way back from Australia, meets and is instantly smitten with Johanna, further complicating Todd’s plans, and Lovett takes in young Tobias Ragg (Connor Johnson), an orphaned young man who grows increasingly suspicious of Todd. Meanwhile, there’s a mysterious Beggar Woman (Kay Love) who keeps appearing and who Todd sees as an annoyance and a distraction.

There’s a lot going on in this play, and the tone is both bleak and darkly comic at different moments. It’s a large cast for the small-ish stage at SDT’s Tower Grove Abbey, but director Justin Been has staged it with a brisk energy that keeps the story going without ever appearing too cluttered. Rob Lippert’s multi-level set is superb, providing an excellent evocation of a 19th Century London street and Mrs. Lovett’s run-down pie shop, as well as Todd’s barber shop above it and various other locations as needed. Tyler Duenow’s dramatic lighting and Ryan Moore’s colorful, meticulously detailed costumes help to set the mood of the production, which keeps an urgent pace throughout as the story starts out dark and only gets darker as the story progresses. Tower Grove Abbey, with its wooden pews, stained glass windows and striking 19th Century architecture, is a fitting space for this show, and the cast uses most of the available performance space (stage and audience area) effectively.

The cast here is extremely strong, led by the brooding, looming, booming-voiced Hey as the determined, vengeful Todd. His sheer single-mindedness is at the forefront here, and his singing is strong and clear, bringing out the power of songs like “No Place Like London”, “My Friends”, and “Epiphany”. Byers, whose diminutive stature provides a physical contrast to the much larger Hey, brings a big personality to the scheming, lovestruck Lovett. Although she struggles a bit with the vocal range on her first song, “Worst Pies In London”, Byers is in excellent form throughout the rest of the production, and her blend of dark desperation and broad humor is showcased well in songs like “By the Sea”, “God, That’s Good”, and the showstopping Act 1 finale, “A Little Priest”, in which she and Hey both shine. There’s also excellent support from the rest of the cast, particularly Gutmann as the ever-optimistic Anthony, Engel as a particularly gutsy Johanna, Wells as the smarmy Beadle Bamford, Gerry Love as the creepy Judge Turpin, Kay Love as the enigmatic Beggar Woman, and Johnson as young Tobias, whose story arc is particularly affecting, although he does struggle a little bit with volume on some of his faster-paced songs. The singing is strong throughout, and there’s a strong, energetic ensemble backing the leads and filling out the stage as townspeople, customers, inhabitants of an asylum, and more.

Sweeney Todd is a show where so much is happening, and where the musical style is so challenging, that I imagine it would be easy to get wrong. Fortunately, Stray Dog’s production gets it right. It’s a sharp social critique and a highly personal tale at the same time. The tone of this show is dark and even mournful at times, but maintaining the pace and energy level is absolutely critical for this show, and that’s done well here. With an excellent cast especially in the two crucial leading roles and a top-notch ensemble, this Sweeney Todd is a chilling, thrilling, and memorable tale.

Cast of Sweeney Todd
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at Tower Grove Abbey until April 22, 2017.

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