note: entire contents copyright 2014 by Sheila Barth
Stephen Sondheim’s multi-Tony Award-winning, gory musical,“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but The Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s 2-3/4-hour production keeps theatergoers’ attention riveted to the stage.
The production, which Lyric Artistic Director-Director Spiro Veloudos describes as a tale of “greed. lust,vengeance, and class abuse, is based on the popular multi-award winning Broadway version, which Dreamworks Pictures produced as a film, starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter in 2007, two years after the play’s revival on Broadway.
The theater’s unintended timing couldn’t be more chilling. As increasingly deranged, 19th century barber Sweeney Todd devolves into a maniacal murderer, skillfully wielding his sharpened razor to slit his victims’ throats, international news of terrorist threats, locally and abroad, scream at us. Sweeney’s razor is a vivid, surrealistic reminder of ISIS group’s recent graphic execution videos of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff’s beheadings.
Thankfully, Veloudos relies on Frank Meissner Jr.’s blood red lighting, sound designer Andrew Duncan Will’s shrilling, siren-like punctuation, and Janie E. Howland’s gritty, gory, two-story set to depict and deflect from the demon barber’s throat-slitting rampage. Howland cleverly sets into motion Sweeney Todd’s partnership with Mrs. Lovett, a down-at-the-heels, meat pie maker, to butcher, batter and bake victims into the sweetest meat pies in all of London.
Throughout the play, the talented ensemble is a Greek chorus, advancing the action and plot, singing “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd”. Besides making Sondheim’s overall discordant music sound great, Music Director Jonathan Goldberg injects horror movie-style organ overtones, heightening terrifying scenes.
Accomplished Boston actor Christopher Chew (he’s also a public school principal) skillfully and realistically portrays the avenging barber with his cutting-edge philosophy of an embittered man. Benjamin Barker-turned-Sweeney Todd was exiled and imprisoned for years on non-existent, trumped-up charges, so presiding Judge Turpin (Paul Soper) could take the barber’s beautiful wife Lucy and young daughter Johanna for himself. As Barker is rescued by kindly sailor Anthony Hope, when his boat is shipwrecked, and Barker, returns to London to re-start his life and hopefully reunite with his family, the evil, guilt-ridden judge flogs himself in private for his evil misdeeds. But that doesn’t stop Turpin’s lustful intent to marry the beautiful, virginal Johanna, whom he keeps locked away in his home.
When Barker returns to his second-floor flat, he meets impoverished widow Mrs. Lovett, who sings about her making “the worst pies in all of London”. Not recognizing him right away, Lovett relates the sordid tale of Barker’s family. An ever-present, disheveled, seemingly demented, poor beggar woman (talented Lisa Yuen) also appears, screaming, begging for money, stealing food and prostituting herself - a grim reminder of London’s seamier side.
Lovett tells the barber his wife committed suicide by taking poison and the judge usurped his daughter, raising her as his own child. She tempers her sad news with a surprise, brandishing a precious box she saved for years - the barber’s finest tools of his trade - a harbinger of sinister, dark deeds to come.
Chew and his award-winning co-star, Amelia Broome as Mrs. Lovett, strike a marvelous balance in their downward spiral. As he descends deeper into insanity, Broome adds levity and comic relief to her cleverly written lines and lyrics during their killing spree. She revels in her newfound wealth and fortune, as Londoners clamor to her shop to buy her famous pies. Lovett also craves love and marriage from her tall, handsome, brooding “business” partner. And they spare nobody, from innocent tourists and gentlemen to blackmailers, like pseudo barber Adolfo Pierelli who threatens to reveal Sweeney Todd’s true identity if Todd doesn’t agree to split his earnings 50 percent. Davron S. Monroe portrays the shyster barber with a flourish, while Phil Tayler is outstanding as Pierelli’s young, slow-witted employee, Tobias Ragg.
Sam Simahk and Meghan LaFlam are bright spots as young lovers, Anthony and the cloistered Johanna. Dignified opera singer Paul Soper’s voice soars with his beautiful, haunting rendition of the Judge’s Song, “Johanna;” while Remo Airaldi as The Beadle and Rishi Basu as mental asylum doctor Jonas Fogg add clout.
“Sweeney Todd” is well worth seeing, but heed this warning: don’t eat immediately after the show. You may not have the stomach for it.
BOX INFO: Two-act musical thriller, music, lyrics, by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler, adapted by Christopher Bond, appearing with The Lyric Stage Company of Boston, featuring a Boston all-star cast, through Oct. 11. Performances at the 140 Clarendon St., Copley Square, Boston theater, are:Wednesdays, 7:30 p.m. with matinees Sept. 10 and Oct. 8, at 2 p.m.; Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 3,8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Tickets start at $25. Seniors receive a $10 discount; student rush tickets, $10. Call the Box Office at 617-585-5678 or visit lyricstage.com.