With its ‘Sweeney Todd,’ Company aces the test

Maryann Zschau as Mrs. Lovett and Peter S. Adams as Sweeney Todd in The Company Theatre’s “Sweeney Todd.” Photo: Zoe Bradford

NORWELL – I’m sure at some point someone – maybe many people — told the late, great genius Stephen Sondheim that trying to make a musical about a homicidal English barber who, with the aid of a soulless female pie maker, recycled his victims was sheer folly. 

Thankfully. Sondheim didn’t listen. And he made a magnificent musical out of a kind of story that no one had ever envisioned as a musical. And therein changed the genre of musical theater forever.

“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” now being presented by The Company Theater through Oct. 23, was by far the darkest story ever adapted for the musical stage when it premiered on Broadway in 1979. It was based on Christopher Bond’s 1973 play of the same name about a London legend that dated back to the 1840s penny dreadful stories.

The cast is led by Peter S. Adams as fugitive Benjamin Barker, and later the homicidal barber Sweeney Todd, and Maryann Zschau as pie maker Mrs. Lovett. They are a match made in heaven and lived on earth. Both have done excellent work at Company many times in past. As strong as Adams is here in the title role – he has the vocal chops to command the stage and embraces the physicality of the role —   Zschau might be just a tad stronger. And if there are echoes in her performance of the legendary Angela Lansbury, who died this week and was  perhaps the best to ever to portray the character, so much the better.

After being wrongfully imprisoned in Australia for 15 years, Benjamin Barker  returns to London a bitter and broken man bent upon revenge.

He arrives with a young sailor named Anthony Hope, played by Shayan Sobhian, a  veteran of both TV and films, who brings  both a strong voice and a winning stage presence to the role.        

Barker returns to Fleet Street, where he once worked as a barber, and is recognized by Mrs. Lovett, who allows him to set up shop on the  second floor over shop. She somehow managed to save his barber’s tools, and he celebrates their return in “My Friends.”

He can find no trace of his wife Lucy, and is told by Mrs. Lovett that his daughter Johanna is being held captive by Judge Turpin (Christopher Hagberg), who conspired to send Sweeney away as he lusted after Lucy. Now he has turned his unwanted attentions on Johanna (Dru Daniels).

Shayan Sobhian as Anthony Hope in “Sweeney Todd.” Photo: Zoe Bradford

Sweeney begins his killing spree, but a problem arises: How to dispose of the victims. It just happens that Mrs. Lovett is having problems finding enough meat for her meat pies and…

It is a tribute to Sondheim’s genius, a show that features grisly murders can find the humor in “A Little Priest,” as Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett debate which occupation makes the tastiest meat pies.

And amidst the blood and gore, it is also a love story, as Johanna and Anthony somehow find each other amidst the madness.

The company climbs every mountain in staging “Sweeney,” which can give nightmares to both performers and technical staff.  Set designer Ryan Barlow employs a set of two-story pieces that are moved quickly and efficiently around the stage as needed, and the special effects are also en pointe.

Steve Bass leads a 15-member orchestra that gives full voice to Sondheim’s glorious score, which contains some of the prettiest music Sondheim ever wrote, including the lovely “Johanna” and the duet between Sweeney and the doomed Judge Turpin in “Pretty Women.” 

Reviewing the first production of any show can be problematic, between first-night nerves and small problems that are typically adjusted after the first performance.

Daniels as Johanna had a hard time being heard in Act I, as especially with softer ballads or when part of a number with multiple voices. There was a good reason for that; she did not have a microphone for the entirety of Act I. That was fixed at intermission and her lovely voice was loud and clear in Act II.

As the Beadle, Judge Turpin’s right-hand man, David Lynch has the vocal chops to play the role. The Beadle is a foppish character and in every production of “Sweeney” I’ve seen  has been portrayed as such, but Lynch might want to tone it down lest his characterization turn into a caricature.

Carol Stearn is very strong as the mysterious Beggar Woman, a demented soul who harbors a dark secret.

Elijah McTiernan has a nice turn as Tobias Ragg, who takes refuge with Mrs. Lovett after his boss, con man Adolpho Pirelli (Matthew Maggio) mysteriously disappears after trying to blackmail Sweeney.

The ensemble – the Greek chorus of voices  who move in and out of the action   — is vital to the success of the show, and it includes Jenna Brickley, Ethan Child, Stephen Flaherty, Michael Hammond, Allyson Lynch, Emily Lyons, Joseph Mamet, Todd Merritt, Kendra Nutting, Frank Piekut, Ryan Rappaport, Bryan Sabbag, Lauren Sabbag, Dana Sullivan and Bobby Zupkofska.

Kudos to director Sally Ashton Forrest for her attention to detail in overseeing both the performers and designers who combined forces to make the show happen. This “Sweeney” will drag you from pillar to post with a range of emotions, but hang on for the ride and you’ll be rewarded.

Because of its technical complexities and difficult score, “Sweeney Todd’ is the type of show a theatrical troupe can measure itself by. And The Company Theatre  has passed the test with flying colors.

The Company Theatre production of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Hugh Wheeler, based on an adaptation by Christopher Bond. Directed by Sally Ashton Forrest. Set design by Ryan Barrow. Costume design by Bri Plummer. Lighting design by Dean Palmer Jr. At the Company Theatre through Oct. 23. Companytheatre.com

Dru Daniels as Johanna and Christopher Hagberg as Judge Turpin in The Company Theatre’s “Sweeney Todd.” Photo: Zoe Bradford