Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by John Saunders
Assistant directed/choreographed by Patrick Heffernan
“So. . .it is you, Benjamin Barker!”
As weird characters go, we have the weird sisters in Macbeth, Jonathan Brewster in Arsenic and Old Lace (he looks exactly like Boris Karloff and Karloff played him in the original stage show) and Sweeney Todd. Sweeney, who may be called the hero of his own story (named for him), is definitely weird. Seeking revenge on the two men who sent him into a life of regimented slavery as proscribed by British law and keeping him from his wife and child, he murders dozens of strangers, sending them to a slaughterhouse where they become the filling for meat pies. His partner in crime, the meat pie-maker Mrs. Lovett, is almost as weird as Sweeney and they are the people we spend the most time with in this musical.
Happily there is a young couple in love who substitute for the main characters in the sympathy/empathy department. Anthony, a sailor, and Johanna, Sweeney’s long-lost daughter, are the lovers in the play and they do get the longed for identification from an audience. But, weirdly, almost as much good feeling goes out to Sweeney and his pie-maker. That is due almost entirely to the wonderful musical numbers they get to sing together.
In the fine production of this musical, now on stage at the Mac-Haydn Theatre in Chatham, New York, very talented people get to play these stellar roles. One of the sweetest vocal Johannas in my memory is this production’s Kelly Gabrielle Murphy, who brings a gentle and lyrical tone into her songs and ensembles. As her swain, Anthony Hope, we are offered the handsome, almost pretty, and virile Quinn Corcoran, whose voice blends with Murphy’s beautifully. Emily Kron plays the wicked witch of East London with a quirky smile and an attitude we recognize from Ethel Merman shows and a raucous musical delivery all her own. As the man she loves, Sweeney himself, we are offered Mark Hardy, who begins the play looking sane and ends it at the far opposite end of the spectrum. He also sings up a storm with a strong lyric baritone quality that is deceptively resonant in the lower register.
Everyone else, except Steve Hassmer as Judge Turpin, the principal villain, stays in that lyric level and everyone transforms their roles through the music they make. This Mac-Haydn show emerges as a unified vision with a perfect project goal. With a pit band of seven players under the joint direction of David Maglione and Jillian Zack, it is the orchestra as much as the on-stage players that holds this production together so well. They play this complex and rich score with a studied perfection that allows the emotion of the songs to come to the fore.
In no particular order, the cast consists of the breathlessly talented Emily Kron who uses every bit of comic ability to turn the most vile woman in the entire lexicon of femme fatales into a distinct charmer whose nuttiness has purpose. Singing, dancing, acting and reacting, Kron imbues Lovett with an unequivocal humanity. This is an actress with a future if the breaks come along. We are looking at the musical theatre’s future here in Chatham.
Kelly Gabrielle Murphy is a beautifully sympathetic Johanna. There is nothing shrill in her voice and nothing missing in her tone. She plays the young woman in trouble with lovely, almost erotic simplicity. Her lover, Anthony, is played to juvenile perfection by Quinn Corcoran (“juvenile” is the technical name for this character’s position in the theatrical sky). Even with an occasional pitch difficulty, Corcoran make us love everything that Anthony does in this show. He is an ideal choice for the role.
Mark Hardy is good-looking even with a messy wig and a meat cleaver in hand. There is a compelling aspect to his Sweeney. It is easy to believe that, when wielding a razor, he would not make a potential victim uneasy or nervous. The shock in the faces of each of his victims is absolutely correct, for Hardy’s softer Sweeney is an inviting personage, a personable criminal. He sings wonderfully and his dramatic core is never melodramatic, a trait that might have made his Sweeney a bit more dangerous. The ease with which he keeps us on his side is a compliment to the actor’s ability to engender comfort in his audience.
Grand Guignol theater, the genre into which this musical generally falls, should make us uneasy, allow us to feel the threat of imminent death. Our hearts should be in our throats and our throats should feel each stroke of the knife. That wasn’t the case in this Mac-Haydn presentation and, in fact, I have never felt it in any production of this show, not even the original. What is amazing about this production is that it works as well as it does in the round with the actors surrounding us. There is a scene in Bedlam, the madhouse that our audience section became, that did provide some of this sense of danger and I loved it. I haven’t had that happen before and director John Saunders played with our sensibilities here and did it beautifully.
Ryan Gregory Thurmann played the boy, Tobias Ragg, very nicely. He made the transition from youngster to madman thrilling to watch and he sang Sondheim’s anthem “Not While I’m Around” to absolute perfection. The thrilling mezzo-soprano of Katie Skawski as the Beggar Woman made that role wondrous. José Plaza was grand as Sweeney’s rival barber, Pirelli. Judge Turpin was performed in a fascinating way by Steve Hassmer, who comes across almost sympathetic, which is wrong; and the Beadle was a grandiose and almost bellicose Jeffrey O’Neill. Together these two men usually create a picture of 19th-century immorality that is the engine that drives the play. In this case they are after that effect, but don’t completely get there.
Jimm Halliday’s costumes created every aspect of historic London in ways that made the company of 21st-century actors move the way the play’s time requires. Kevin Gleason’s set gave us the gloomy side of that city perfectly and Andrew Gmoser’s deep and darkly atmospheric lighting added to the concept of horror in the streets of a city on fire. Bravos also to the wig design work of Michael Dunn and Timothy Williams. This team is the perfect complement to the stage direction of John Saunders, who has taken this difficult piece and created a three-hour entertainment that flies by. To the woman in the parking lot overheard saying “why did I come to this?”, the answer is simple: You came to this because John Saunders and his team of interpreters need your incredulity to define the purpose of the authors. They need you to validate their work. Your discomfort is gratefully accepted by the people on stage and off stage.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street plays at the Mac-Haydn Theatre, 1925 Rte. 203, Chatham, New York, through Sunday, Aug. 6. For tickets and information, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, call the box office at 518-392-9292 or go online to www.machaydntheatre.org.