‘Sweeney Todd’: Murder, mayhem and theater magic
BOSTON — In 1980, I was sitting on the porch of the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge after a performance of “Anyone Can Whistle” at the Berkshire Theatre Festival when an actor named George Hearn told me about a play he had been cast in that was coming to the then-Wang Center in Boston as part of its First National Tour.
“It’s called ‘Sweeney Todd’ and Angela Lansbury is also in it,” he said. “You should see it.”
I did, and I was hooked. “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” which debuted on Broadway in 1979, was a musical of a sort that Broadway had never seen before, a jet-black thriller that mixed murder, mayhem and music, and at the center of it was a maniac dubbed “The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” and whose shaves were definitely too close for comfort.
Hugh Wheeler’s pull-no-punches book, based on Christopher Bond’s adaptation of the tale, went places Broadway had never gone before. and the score is one of Stephen Sondheim’s finest, with beautiful ballads (“Pretty Woman,” “Joanna”) juxtaposed with ultra-clever lyrics (“A Little Priest”) that are a bane to actors but a delight for audiences.
“Sweeney Todd” stretched the boundaries of the modern American musical until they were unrecognizable, paving the way for others to follow.
The Lyric Stage Company’s of “Sweeney Todd” is an impressive realization of Sondheim’s masterwork, masterfully acted and staged and acted with exquisite attention to detail, Spiro Veloudos’ hallmark as a director.
Veloudos has also taken his “Todd” to even darker, bleaker places than in past productions, suggesting that Todd ’s anger knew no bounds , described in the lyric sung by the character: “They all deserve to die.”
Christopher Chew’s Todd is a bit slow to find his righteous anger, but find it he does, and it then burns brightly for the remainder of the production. Sweeney, aka Benjamin Barker, has spent 15 years in jail in Australia on a trumped-up charge, finally escaping and returning to 19th Century London with a single-minded goal: vengeance on all those who had a hand in sending him away and wrecking his family in the process.
Amelia Broome is almost too attractive to be Mrs. Lovett, the meat-pie saleswoman who provides Sweeney the space to pursue his murderous ends, but again in this production she is more explicit in where she sees her relationship going, and she handles with aplomb the vocal demands of numbers such as “The Worst Pies in London” and the winsome “By The Sea,” a jarring contrast to the murderous chaos around her
There was a problem hearing some of her lyrics early on, but by the time she and Chew teamed up for the exquisite “A Little Priest” — a macabre paean to the ingredients of her meat pies — all was in sync.
Sam Simahk has a hearty voice and exudes bonhomie as the sailor Anthony, who befriends Todd and eventually stumbles across Todd’s lovely daughter Joanna (Meghan LaFlam), who has been hidden away by the evil Judge Turpin (Paul Soper).
Phil Tayler is a little more physically imposing than the most actors who usually play Tobias Ragg, the childlike assistant to Signor Pirelli who unwittingly aids Todd and Mrs. Lovett in their misdeeds, but he absolutely nails the part otherwise and his rendition of “Not While I’m Around” is heartbreaking.
Davron S. Monroe has a nice comic and vocal turn as Pirelli, the snake oil salesman who turns out to be a threatening blast from Sweeney’s past.
Soper is in fine voice as the deluded Judge Turpin, especially so in his soaring, operatic duets with Chew’s Todd.
Lisa Yuen has a difficult role as the Beggar Woman whose ravings contain truths that will become evident.
Remo Airaldi smartly captures the easygoing menace of the corrupt Beadle Bamford.
The production values are superb.Franklin Meissner’s lighting is all shades and shadows, dark corners that portend the dreadful events to follow; Janie Howland’s versatile, two-tiered set allows both Todd and Lovett to perform their “handiwork” while Rafael Jaen’s costumes are period-perfect.
Jonathan Goldberg heads a seven-piece orchestra that splendidly handles the twists and turns of Sondheim’s a tricky, difficult score and Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations.
Veloudos’ legendary attention to detail often shows itself in subtle, but important and telling ways. He employed dialect coach Bryn Austin, and yes, the actors are rock solid — they are not falling in and out of their accents.
“Sweeney Todd” is Sondheim at its finest, and the Lyric production does both him — and the theater — much credit.
The Lyric Stage Company of Boston Production of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Hugh Wheeler, based on the adaptation by Christopher Bond. Directed by Spiro Veloudos. Through Oct. 11 at the Lyric Stage Company. http://www.lyricstage.com.