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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by Hugh Wheeler
From and 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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