Stray Dog Theatre Company isn’t afraid to take any chances, and this time, its bite is way worse than its bark. Sweeney Todd, subtitled “The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” a “musical thriller,” isn’t alone in its genre, but it’s unique all the same. It has all the elements of conventional musical comedy: false accusation and banishment, grinding poverty, the Great Fire of London, murder, kidnapping, cannibalism, the filth that is the industrial revolution in England, the many in service to the few….
No, wait. Those aren’t funny, at least not as the basis of a musical which is expected to have a love story and a happy ending and all that jazz. Even Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly end up being friends, for heaven’s sake. However here, these appalling issues are rendered both at least slightly amusing and tuneful in the skilled hands of creators Stephen Sondheim (music, lyrics) and Hugh Wheeler (book, based on an adaptation by Christopher Bond). If you were pitching the premise, you might present it as Titus Andronicus, only with songs and jokes. And most surprising of all, it works. It works very, very well.
Jon Hey, imposing enough in mufti, is horrifying as Sweeney (nee Benjamin Barker) in monster makeup complete with scars and a long coat that makes him seem even taller. His look flirts with parody but doesn’t cross the line. He has returned to his old stomping grounds to seek revenge against the judge who treated him monstrously by banishing him to Australia on trumped up charges because he covets Sweeney’s wife, Lucy, presumed dead.
His cohort, Mrs. Lovett (Lavonne Byers) whom he runs into when he goes back to the old neighborhood, admits she makes “the worst pies in London” in her shop beneath the barber’s once and future shop. Byers is excellent, as always, and she appears almost cute in this role. She plays Mrs. L. as flirtatious and coy. She is able to justify the worst possible deeds into the best potential outcomes. She convinces Sweeney anyway, and she nearly convinces us. She sings “By the Sea” in Act II, a potential dead spot in the action, but not for her; rather, it’s the dream of being with the man she has come to love in what she fantasizes is their eventual well-deserved retirement.
I can’t think of a truly weak link in the cast. Worthy of special mention are Connor Johnson, particularly endearing as a ragamuffin who has taken up with “Adolfo Pirelli” (Tyler Cheatem equipped with a booming operatic baritone) whose rivalry as a barber/dentist allows Sweeney to win a bet and get set up again in business. Johnson has great stage presence for a kid, a fine voice with which to duet on “Not While I’m Around” with his surrogate mom, Mrs. Lovett, and a penchant that simply won’t be denied for stealing any scene he’s in.
Kay Martin Love and Gerry Love are effective as The Beggar Woman and Judge Turpin, respectively. She prowls the stage, alternately begging and soliciting sex from strangers and he is the evil renderer of “justice,” who banished Barker and stole his wife and their infant child 15 years ago, and now he must pay. As for Johanna (Eileen Engel), Turpin has brought up the child as his own, but his feelings, which he hopes to exorcise with a cat o’nine tails as he sings the haunting ballad “Johanna” about his ward (Eileen Engel) and it raises a chill. Mike Wells uses his rather comic presence and beautiful tenor voice to create an ally for the Judge, Beadle Banford, who is nearly as evil as the older man, but still in a Nathan Lane, almost cuddly, kind of way.
In the way of all Shakespeare and most musicals, Johanna and Anthony Hope (Cole Gutmann) fall in love in about five seconds, but that’s okay. We meet Hope early on since he rescued Sweeney from the raft he used to escape Australia and brought him home. As the object of his affection, Engel is good, but a bit hard to understand in her higher registers and Hope is equally appealing, but possibly a bit overwhelmed by the company he is keeping on stage.
The rest of the cast is comprised of the chorus, besides the aforementioned Cheatem, another member, Scott Degitz-Fries also plays a character called Jonas Fogg, while the others are simply billed as “ensemble.” However with those voices, I think nearly all of them are ready for their close-ups right now; in fact a couple have already had lead roles. They are Angela Bubash, Ted Drury, Laura Megan Deveney, Kimmie Kidd, Stephanie Merritt, Kevin O’Brien, and Benjamin Sevilla. Excellent vocalists every one, except again, while director Justin Been’s sound is mostly good, the highest voices tend to spatter.
The musicians under the able direction and keyboards of Chris Petersen are also the best I can recall hearing at this particular venue. You can’t see them, so I wasn’t sure until I looked at the program and saw them acknowledged by the actors, that the music wasn’t recorded. If they missed any notes, I didn’t hear them.
I could pick a couple of nits: the biggest one for me was the confusing set by the usually near-perfect Rob Lippert. I realize the space limitations in the Abbey, but one’s attention is drawn to the fact that Sweeney’s tonsorial parlor and Judge Turpin’s house appear to be the same structure. Mostly it’s handled, but for example, if Mrs. Lovett can see Sweeney’s first victim lying right there on the floor, why can’t the Judge when he visits? I know Johanna prowls on the roof and sings about finches and other caged birds and we do get the symbolism, but she really doesn’t have much space to move around. On the other hand, maybe that is part of the point, since she is a prisoner in her own home.
Still, it’s much easier to say what does work rather than what doesn’t, which is just about everything, from the costumes by Ryan Moore, Tyler Duenow’s moody lighting design, Been’s inventive direction that uses all the space on the stage and much of that around it, and, of course, the glorious Sondheim words and music.
“Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd / the Demon Barber of Fleet Street” the chorus exhorts us at the beginning and the end of the show, and I surely hope you heed their advice.
Sweeney Todd runs at Stray Dog Theatre located in the Tower Grove Abbey through April 22, 2017. All performances are at 8 p.m., and they are all but sold out. You may contact www.straydogtheatre.org or call 314-865-1995.