Sweeney Todd – Shave and a Haircut To Bits

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Sweeny Todd, Photo Courtesy: Stillpointe Theatre

A REVIEW BY THE BAD ORACLE

Ohhhhhh, Stillpointe Theatre Initiative, you are lucky that I enjoy me some gimmicky crap.  I am generally a fan of companies DOING things and TRYING things rather than just letting the same old same old lie around stinking up the stage.  In the words of ol’ Meanie Odd himself: planning the plan is half the fun.  There comes a point, though, where the scale slightly tips and you wonder if the show is bumpin’ and grindin’ it’s way to a little tootoo much.  But we’ll get there.  First, the tale:  Barber Benjamin Barker (Bobby Libby) has lived a rather rough life on the streets of Victorian England.  He has returned home to those coal-stained fog-ridden avenues courtesy Anthony (Jonathan Schuyler) a sweetly innocent sailor who rescued him at sea.  Barker’s homecoming is not-exactly-triumphant seeing as he was exiled at the bequest of evilllll Judge Turpin (Will Carson), who was alustin’ after his wife.  On his first day back he bumps into Mrs. Lovett (Amanda J. Rife), the proprietress of the worst pie shop in London (literally, there are bugs skittering across the floor).  Mrs. Lovett drops some knowledge on Ben, now calling himself Sweeney Todd (title drop!) indicating that Mrs. Barker has died and the judge has taken Todd’s daughter, Johanna (Zoe Kanter), as his ward.  From that moment on, Todd becomes even more obsessed with Turpin – but how to enact revenge?  Ahhh, but barbers own razors, don’t they?  Sweeney sets up shop above Mrs. Lovett’s place and, after a street demonstration of his skills that publicly humiliates his rival, Pirellis (Lawrence D Bryant and Ian Anthony Coleman), starts enjoying a roaring trade.  Pretty soon his uncontrolled rage and sadness start bubbling up to the tune of a body count.  Mrs. Lovett sees that she can kill two birds with one and, with the unwitting help of her little-boy-helper, Tobias (Zachary Tallman) starts throwing the bodies into her oven to become the main ingredient in the most savory long-pig pies anyone has ever tasted.  This has to end well, right?  And, so, everyone lives happily ever after.  JK!

Okay, now, back to those gimmicks.  Director Ryan Michael Haase throws all the spaghetti he can find at the wall and some of it sticks and some of it doesn’t and some of it just kind of hangs there.

Here is a list of things that worked:

1.  Double Pirellis.  I don’t understand why this role was cast as twins, but it’s hysterical.  Lawrence D Bryan IV and Ian Anthony Coleman ooze and mince around the stage clutching silver mirrors and Restoration hairbrushes. I loved this shtick.

2. Feral Johanna.  Johanna, usually a miserably boring ingenue, is here sporting a white fright wig and hiding at the top of her stairs like a feral animal.  I can honestly say that I’ve never seen this character like this before and it really works.  Add to that the fact that Zoe Kanter can sing like an unhuman bird-demon and the choice is really goddamned successful.

3.  Shave ALL The Things.  I don’t want to give the joke away because it’s a funny surprise in the show, but Haase finds an ingenious way to make a usually sausagefest of an ensemble work multi-gendered.

4.  The VENUE, GOD THE VENUE.  I’m not going to say much about the stage, set and aesthetic of the show (Achilles is going to weigh in a little later and he will shiv me if I steal his thunder) but it was pretty much the best found space I have ever seen (and, again, I’m shutting up because the man is fast with a shank).

Here is a list of things that kind of worked:

1.  Ensemble On Stage.  The ensemble is seated on the stage at all times.  Now, sometimes this adds a cool effect (like when they transform themselves into an old car or a pack of zombies straight out of a horror movie).  Sometimes it just doesn’t (like the last thirty minutes or so as they just lie around and you can’t help but feel sorry for them prone there in the cold night air).  I did find that some of the most effecting numbers, such as the show stopping number  “A Little Preist”, took place when the ensemble was off stage and we could focus on the action.

2.  Little Tobias.  Tobias, normally cast as a child, is here a full grown man acting like a little boy.  This is occasionally cute but gets kind of old and loses the gut-punch relationship between the kid and Mrs. Lovett towards the end of the show.

Here is something that did not work at all:

1.  Narrator.  This was the one thing about the show that I hated.  For some reason, Haase decided to add the character of the “Narrator” (Ken Jordan) who I guess is supposed to be Sondheim himself sitting in front of the stage watching the action and sometimes actually reading the stage directions out loud.  I found this ponderous and a real “Oh, the cleverness of me!” moment.  In several scenes the characters directed to this weird narrator instead of to each other, entirely losing the emotional impact.

Sifting through all of “this and that and this” there were some nice and intriguing performances to be enjoyed.  I wasn’t initially drawn to Amanda Rife’s Mrs. Lovett, I thought she looked too young and sweet to really cook the crazy, but I was wrong and cook it she did with a strong voice beautifully on display especially in the aforementioned “A Little Preist” and the second act’s “By the Sea” (although this number, like a couple of others, could have used some more inventive blocking – Haase is a fan of the “sit/stand and sing” school).  Same with Bobby Libby, not exactly love at first sight.  I thought he was, again, too young and too pouty but I ended up quite warming to his take on the title character.  I thought it was fresh and strong and his voice is kind of raw and exciting.  Will Carson is understated here as Judge Turpin, which I rather liked as sometimes Turpin can skew a little too grossly Frolloish for my taste.  The live musicians, led by conductor/music director Stacey Antoine were really fabulous – as someone who has played in pit orchestras before (including one outfit charmingly named “Pit Stain”) I am consistently struck at the amount of talent Baltimore boasts in this area.  Just awesome.

BOTTOM LINE:  Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street jerked, hitched and pulled it’s way forward like a broken ghoul train loaded down with unnecessary conceits.  Strip those away, though, and you’re left with a rough diamond, sure – but a diamond indeed I do deem it.  There is something so captivating, something so fresh, something so winningly ambitious about this production.  I say hurry up and go!

Okay, and now, as promised, you get a BONUS MINI-REVIEW courtesy of Achilles Feels!  Achilles and I happened to attend this show together, which rarely happens, and since he puts these “big picture” things together so much better than I do, I’m making him work (that’ll teach him to EVER go to anything with me).  Here is his take on the design of Sweeney Todd:

Battling stormy monsoon-like conditions during tech-week, Ryan Haase the Artistic Director of Stillpointe Theatre Initiative –along with his passionate team– put together a visual feast with their production of “Sweeney Todd.”  It’s like Thanksgiving dinner for the eyes, complete with that strange dish Auntie Dolores brings annually that nobody can identify.

The back-alley dock location of Area 405 is an ideal setting for the dark and gothic tale of Todd.  The history of the building runs the gamut of equipment manufacturer, brewery, household appliance distributor, and now a gallery and event space as well as an artist co-op of sorts.  The shabby lobby and exposed steel beams of the communal areas on the gallery level of the warehouse  are especially beautiful.  This industrial and sparse vibe of peeling lead paint, strange rusty mechanical support systems, bare light bulbs, and open floor plan continues through to the back bar, gallery area and indoor performance stage (not used for this production).  Following out through a confusing set of doors and inadequately illuminated steps into the courtyard-like dock area; a medley of asphalt, brink, stone, and twisted steel opens up to the evening sky several storeys above.  The outdoor dock area features an impressive antique non-working pallet elevator that, when functioning, would move thousands of pounds of industrial materials from trucks to the appropriate floor on the exterior of the building.  This enormous vertically looming structure, along with a steel tracked block-and-fall system, and the antique brick of the building are the backdrop for Stillpointe’s London.   

The Ryan Haase aesthetic of a queen Elizabethan sofa, a glaringly bright vintage chandelier, some antique chairs, tables, and a rolling painter’s ladder provide a setting that is merely suggestive.  The production features no set changes except for a swap of the iconic chair as an “upgrade” during intermission.  This static set would not have worked well elsewhere and the use of the building’s exterior geometry and industrial elements are brilliant.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has only 4 iconic elements a designer needs to nail to make the show a visual success:  the oven, the barber’s chair, the razors, and the splattering, gushing rubies of blood.  Unexpectedly this production only delivered on one element; the razors. Props by Angela McNulty fit the Haase’s production design aesthetic of shabby industrial steampunk nicely.  The razors were beautiful, shiny, and well manipulated by Sweeney (Bobby Libby). But what was up with those contemporary margarita glasses the ensemble sported?  The oven was a masonite faced contraption tucked into the corner of the dock’s architecture.  It also did not do anything, no smoke, no sounds, no nothing!  It should be a beastly breathing, cannibalizing, baking machine. The “upgraded” version of the barber’s chair was simply an elevated wooden antique swivel office chair with most of it’s details removed or obscured.  There was nothing menacing nor mesmerizing about it.

Finally: The #1 element that should leave you unsettled and horrified: THE BLOOD.  Where the hell was the blood?  No blood?  NO FUCKING BLOOD?  Hordes of beautiful semi-period costumes (designed by Anna Tringali) that nodded to the victorian era fashioned in tones of black, grey, and bleach-white begged to be drenched in flowing, iron rich, faint-inducing, blood. When I see Sweeney slit a throat, I need gallons of blood gushing forth from the wound.

The (visual) Bottom Line:  Stillepointe’s production of “Sweeney Todd” is artistically wonderful even if it does lack some of the iconic horror moments.  The Area 405 building was a genius integration into a story that could have come from that exact Baltimore location.  Battling a week-long downpour of rain, this team is to be thoroughly commended for executing, down to the neck, an aesthetic that felt so thematically rich and visually engaging.

Running at Stillpointe Theatre Initiative until May 10th.

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2 comments

  • First, thanks for your wonderful reviews of Baltimore Theater! I am really happy that we have this wonderful little community and want to see it grow. It’s a shame there aren’t bigger audiences, they absolutely deserve them.
    On the strength of your review, we went down to see Sweeney Todd tonight. We loved it! The vocalists and pit musicians exceeded my expectations. I especially thought ‘Toby’ had an absolutely beautiful tenor voice. Wow! Several times we wanted to clap (like after By the Sea) but there wasn’t really a pause in the show to allow it. We happily donated at the end when the artistic director came out and mentioned that they pay all the participants (doing the math, it can’t be much, but it’s good that they do something).
    After seeing it, for the most part I agree with your review. I wasn’t so so annoyed with the ‘narrator’ part, but it was definitely jarring/distracting in a few places. But in others I thought it helped — like when there is supposed to be a venue change (to the back parlor, or upstairs, or the street) but nothing really would cue you to that onstage, and nothing else is really happening — that was good. But yeah, the yelling out of “and she places her hand tenderly on his” was kind of WTF. I also felt really sorry for the ‘dead’ people hanging out on stage — it was freaking cold last night!
    Again, thanks for the thoughtful and balanced reviews… you’re really doing a service to Baltimore and its theater scene!

    • Thank you for the kind words, evalinesees. I’m so stoked that you went to see the show (and donated!) on the strength of the review. That’s why we’re doing this thing. I loved your comments about the show, I found them really insightful. Thanks for reading!

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