Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street opened to enthusiastic audiences this past Friday at Swirnow Theatre. The Barnstormers had to turn people away at the door during the performances on Friday and Saturday nights, as both shows ended up being sold out a while before the show even started.
Sweeney Todd, a 1979 musical by famed theatre composer Stephen Sondheim, tells the story of Benjamin Barker (Ryan Blake), who was falsely imprisoned by a corrupt judge (Jeremy Dolinko). When he returns to London after fifteen years under the name Sweeney Todd, he finds out his wife committed suicide after the judge raped her, and his anger leads him to swear revenge not only on the judge, but on the whole world. Along with a piemaker named Mrs. Lovett (sophomore Kathleen Lewis), he opens a barbershop and slits customers’ throats and uses their bodies in pies.
Further complicating the plot is the fact that Sweeney’s friend, Anthony (graduate student Allen Cheng) falls in love at first sight with Sweeney’s teenaged daughter, Johanna (freshman Elizabeth Sylvester), who has become a ward of the judge since her mother died and her father was transported. Anthony plots to get Johanna away from the judge, and this ends up complicating Sweeney’s plans to get revenge on the man who ruined his life.
Overall, this show was extremely well-cast. Even at the level of the ensemble, it was clear that each individual performer clearly understood their character and the show very well. From the first moment when various ensemble members appear on stage with only a latern and tell the audience to “attend the tale of Sweeney Todd,” the show gave audience chills not only because of the gory and twisted tale it tells, but also because of its poignant commentary on the depravity and immorality of society.
Sophomore Ryan Blake was haunting as the shadowy Sweeney Todd. He proved that he was able to carry a show with his powerful voice and omnious presence. Although Sweeney was a killer, Blake was able to make the audience empathize with him, which is quite a difficult task.
However, the person who truly stole the show was Lewis in the lead role of Mrs. Lovett. Not only did she manage to use a Cockney accent and maintain it throughout the entire show, which helped to definitely set Sweeney Todd in 19th century London, she was also the most believable person in the cast.
She flirted, prodded, inspired and frustrated Sweeney from beginning to end, and audiences were also able to invest in her character despite her morbid idea to bake dead bodies into meat pies. The audience couldn’t help but admire her tenacity and ambition to get ahead in life by whatever means necessary.
Cheng and Sylvester were also impressive in their respestive secondary roles. Cheng was charming and the audience couldn’t help but root for him in his quest to first win Johanna’s heart and then to rescue her from the judge’s iron grasp. In a role that could come off as creepy, he managed to make it romantic and tender.
Sylvester wowed audiences with the range of her vocal abilities, specifically her soprano register. She embodied the sweet, innocent nature of Johanna from the first moment she appeared on stage.
Although this is a story involving death and destruction, there were several comedic moments throughout, mostly from the Beadle (junior Pat Hampton). Who can forget his hilarious duet with Mrs. Lovett and her desperate attempts to get him to leave before he searches her cellar and finds all the dead body parts stored there?
This show would not have been as successful as it was without the talents of juniors Haley Veldt as the Beggar Woman and Victoria Schroeter as Adolfo Pirelli. The former especially becomes a very important character, and Veldt's performance was convincing and creepy.
Schroeter cut a dashing figure as the dasdardly Adolfo, who schemed to blackmail Sweeney (as he figured out Sweeney’s true identity) until Sweeney got the upper hand and slit his throat instead. Her performance made everyone forget that she was not actually a man in real life.
Not only were the actors superb, but the set design was amazing as well, consisting of stairs, “cellar” doors, and of course, a chair and slide by which Sweeney could send his unfortunate victims down to the oven below. The relative complexity of the set contributed to the realistic atmosphere that the show perpetuated.
The main complaint that many people had about the show was the imbalance between singing and accompaniment throughout the show. For most of the performance, the amps on the instruments were turned up much too loud, drowning out a lot of the dialogue and songs and leading to confusion about what was going on in certain parts of theshow.
However, despite this technical issue, the show was an enjoyable way to spend several hours at the theatre away from schoolwork.
Through this powerful performance, audiences were prompted to think about struggle, obsession and the grey morality of revenge. The fact that the actors were able to make these themes and issues clear speak to their talent at portraying this world in which Sweeney lived. By bringing 19th century London to life in Swirnow Theatre, questions which were relevant back then and are still relevant today resonated through the relatively tiny space.
Effective artists force their audience members to think, and the cast of Sweeney Todd achieved exactly this, proving once again that the Barnstormers are talented in the art of stagecraft.
Sweeney Todd will have additional performances on Friday April 12 and Saturday April 13 at 8 p.m. as well as on Sunday April 14 at 3 p.m.