Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of the Shaw Festival
There’s no place like old London (England, that is), especially escorted by the likes of Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett. Here at the Shaw Festival in Canada (as I visit my family in the other London), director Jackie Maxwell is helming the dark thriller, Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and giving us quite the ride.
It’s a beautifully designed and orchestrated production, hitting all the big full throttled and full throated numbers with an excitement deserving of this masterpiece by Stephen Sondheim. Designed by Judith Bowden, with Lighting by Alan Brodie and Sound by John Lott, the stage reeks of the menace and evil of men, although at times, the staging and choreographed movement (Choreographer: Valerie Moore) feels forced, typical, or a bit too pedestrian, all of which the mean streets of this particular London are not. It feels like this team might be in a bit over their heads at moments, while others, especially the song that weaves its way throughout, “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd”, has the weight it needs. This is when the teamwork of the ensemble stows its true strength.
As fitting with the Shaw Festival company structure, everyone is involved with more then one production here in the lovely town of Niagara on the Lake. That organization gives this show some major pluses but also minuses, depending on how you want to look at it. The two leads do very well (we had the understudy for Mrs. Lovett for the Sunday matinee of Thanksgiving weekend, a wonderfully fun performance by Jennie L. Wright – looks like she’s having the time of her life). Benedict Campbell is a decent Sweeney Todd, but lacks some of the devilish bravado, fiendish subtlety, and powerful voice that this part needs, but I did love Wright’s feisty and fresh take on Mrs. Lovett, even with a few flubs here and there, their chemistry felt true and sexy, especially their kiss. That being said, although the musical lacked the electric star power of other productions I’ve seen (namely Patti LuPone and Michael Cerveris in the 2005 Broadway revival – one of my top musical of all times – see: https://frontmezzjunkies.com/about-ross/
), the lacking did create a more balanced
production in some ways. I have never paid more attention to the two lovers as much as I did here. Could be because Joanna and Anthony (Kristi Frank and Jeff Irving) are superb and generate a more emotional adoration at the first meeting then most productions I have seen. “Green Finch and Linnet Bird”, a song that usually irritates me, had such beauty and sweetness that I was overwhelmed. Andrew Broderick as Tobias, on the other hand, seemed to struggle with his part and his accent, over-doing every moment with too grand a gesture and inflection. Such a disappointment that such a beautiful part became something of a distraction to the unity of all else.
I’m not sure what my family thought of this marvelous piece of dark murderous theatre on a lovely Canadian fall day, but I left the Festival stage delighted to have seen this production. There was no star turns here but the evenness of all filled me up regardless. Just like a good thanksgiving dinner when the turkey is good, but the side dishes surprise. It gave me a new and satisfying way of hearing this magnificent piece of musical theatre, before walking out into the brisk clean Canadian air and looking for good slice of meat pie and a beer to wash it down. (I must admit I can’t wait to see the upcoming Barrow Street Sweeney Todd but at the moment I am satiated.) Happy Canadian Thanksgiving from Niagara on the Lake.
Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street: Director: Jackie Maxwell; Music/Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim; Book: High Wheeler; Music; Director: Paul Sportelli; Choreographer: Valerie Moore; Designer: Judith Bowden; Lighting: Alan Brodie; Sound: John Lott
Cast: Benedict Campbell (Sweeney Todd), Corrine Koslo (Mrs. Lovett) (understudy – Jennie L. Wright), Andrew Broderick (Tobias Ragg), Kristi Frank (Joanna), Jeff Irving (Anthony Hope), Marcus Nance (Judge Turpin)