Friday, March 1, 2024

Sweeney Todd 2024 (review)

Spoilers ahoy!  

This marks the sixth production I have seen of what is arguably Stephen Sondheim's most gothic work--an eerie, strangely funny, and nearly always very beautiful musical/operetta about a figure from the cheapest of Victorian literature forms--the "penny dreadful."

Based on an adaptation by Christopher Bond that gave a motive to the "Demon Barber of Fleet Street" Sweeney Todd allows productions to really go to down.  So many rich characters!  So many ways to make this weird almost steampunk nightmare can be brought on stage!

Yet, strangely, most productions seek to copy either the movie or some other already popular production.  One of the many, many reasons I loved A Noise Within's current version is how much they avoided that.  In fact, several times I was absolutely startled!  A slightly rare and often delightful event in seeing a show I know so well.

The basic plot is almost simple.  Todd (Geoff Elliott) arrives in early Victorian London with a sailor named Anthony (James Everts), but is filled with rage and loathing towards the city.  He goes and finds Mrs. Lovett (Cassandra Marie Murphy), who runs a meat pie shop under an old flat no one will rent because people say it is haunted.  It turns out something happened there years and years ago--when Todd was a happily married barber with a beautiful wife and infant daughter, transported to penal servitude for life by one Judge Turpin (Jeremy Robb) who lusted after Todd's wife.  His accomplice in all this was his Beadle (Harrison White).

Todd's frustrations lead to a solemn and insane declaration of how "WE  ALL DESERVE TO DIE!"  He becomes what we could call a serial killer, with Mrs. Lovett insisting they use his victims as a source of meat for her pies.  The last notion becomes one of the most iconic and funny songs in musical history.

Amid all of this Anthony becomes the love interest of Johanna (Joanna A. Jones), Todd's daughter and Judge Turpin's now-ward.  Another barber named Pirelli (Kasey Mahaffy), a street urchin named Toby (Josey Montana McCoy), and mad Beggar Woman (Amber Liekhus) all weave their way into this story, under the direction of Julia Rodriguez-Elliott.  It all makes for macabre comedy and tragedy at the same time, a little bit of grand guignol blended with Charles Dickens and sprinkled with some George Bernard Shaw.  

While it is not perfect--there are a few nuances that struck a wrong note for me, but in questioning other audience members no one else seemed bothered, so I'm not describing them is worthwhile.  I'd rather discuss what was new and delightfully different--like the sexual tension between Mrs. Lovett and Toby, the way Todd himself came across as a total psychopath (which to be honest took a little of the passion away from the tale), the chorus members feeling as if they are individuals in this dark world, the extraordinary staging of many set pieces (not least the murders as well as the oven).  

Performances of Sweeney Todd take place February 17 through March 17 on Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; and Sundays at 2 p.m.  A Noise Within is located at 3352 E Foothill Blvd., Pasadena, CA 91107

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