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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

Sweeny Todd at ISF

Or: Gory Hallelujah!

“I have loved this stage/beheld its wonders” “From the Art of Shaw and Wilde/To the Beauties of the Bard” “But there’s No One like Sondheim!/No there’s No One like Sondheim!”

No one indeed. Victoria Bussert, who has piloted the Idaho Shakespeare Festival through many musical theater triumphs such as Cabaret and ‘08’s sterling production of Into the Woods, returns to our arena under the stars to stage Sondheim and Wheelers, heinously difficult and notoriously bloody Sweeney Todd. Despite the disquieting elements of the play, and the trowlish manner of presentation, Bussert makes the Demon Barber a sweeping success, not least because she has piled together an ISF dream team: Tom Ford as the eponymous barber and Sara M. Brunner as the lively Mrs. Lovett.

An urban legend from the victorian age, the story of Todd has had many different bloody incarnations before being crystalized in a Sondheim musical. Some say that so ancient is the story, and so dark, that it has acquired the deadly charm of Shakespeare's Scottish play, and is cursed (by the theater’s laundry department if no one else).

Sweeney Todd, has just arrived in London. Fifteen years ago, a barber named Benjamin Barker, was torn from his loving wife Lucy and baby daughter Johanna by the lecherous Judge Turpin (Darren Matthias). Fifteen years later, Barker, now bearing the name of Sweeney Todd returns to London to visit revenge upon those who destroyed his family. He finds assistance in the lively Mrs. Lovett, maker of meat pies, who carried a seizable, if unnoticed, torch for the old shaver. As the bodies start to pile up Mrs. Lovett has an...extremely practical idea about what to do with all that flesh....

Though I am hardly a qualified judge to say, I am of the opinion that Sweeney Todd is not Sondheim’s best work. Its music is intentionally discordant and the lyrics are often layered over each other making audibility tricky for the audience. I can only imagine how difficult it is for the actors to sing it and the orchestra (lead by Matthew Webb) to play it. Yet the music does sweep in grand, almost operatic style, I cannot listen to “No Place Like London” (tweaked with reverence, above) without my heart leaping into my chest nor the wail of “City on Fire” without chills. In addition, the show also contain works of pure lyrical brilliance most notably the act one finale, “A Little Priest”, which accomplishes the impossible task of making the audience laugh till they cry, even as they lean away in revulsion.

Bussert is skilled at illuminating the little reactions and interactions of her characters, but sometimes her actors take on the broad and stocky gestures of a music hall: a raised fist here, an out flung hand there, the occasional tapering scream. Though not strictly inappropriate (Mr. Wheelers book is a penny dreadful all grown up), they can undercut the great tragedy and cruelty of the story. In addition to outlying the talents of the company, Sweeney Todd also allows the designers to work wonders. Quite apart from all the knife wielding and hemo-technics, Scenic Designer Jeff Herrmann has created all sorts of ways for the cast to imperial themselves on a set filled with more trapdoors and revolving walls then a Hammer Horror castle. Costume Designer Charlotte Yetman has decked the ensemble in the finest Steam Punk garments: shining leather, gleaming buckles by the dozens, boastful rivets (The Beadles (M.A. Taylor’s) wardrobe is quite striking on that front) and imposing bustles. And of course Sound Designer Richard B. Ingraham is to be congratulated for crafting a truly gut-churning sound of grinding meat in Mrs. Lovett’s baking house.

Notable performances include the wide-eyed inanmorati of Anthony Hope (Zach Adkins), the young pure hearted sailor who rescues Todd from Australia, and Johanna (Clare Eisentrout) Todd’s daughter who grew up locked away as Judge Turpin’s ward.

Adkins has a fine clear voice, a stout rope of sound heaved off above our heads, meant to lasso us and other characters to the side of righteousness. Eisentrout’s voice is more classically trained and we applaud it on its versatility and strength rather than articulation. Both tackle the ridiculously difficult, full-steam duet “Kiss Me” and scurry through it with flying colors. Another triumph for them is, unlike other Anthony’s and Johanna’s who are played as incorruptibly pure, both Adkins and Eisnentrout, have brief blink and you’ll miss it flashes of a frightening steeliness: in the right circumstances both could Fall, far and fast.

As the Beadle, M.A. Taylor finally gets to show his style as, relatively, straight villain who he excels at but rarely gets to play. His Beadle, the Judges right hand, is courteous and even poetic Monster who proves, in the words of Sir Terry Pratchett, “That there are hardly any excesses of the most crazed psychopath that cannot easily be duplicated by a normal, kindly family man who just comes in to work every day and has a job to do.”

Of course, though the real triumph of the evening must be handed to the dark duo, the Bloody Barber and the Pie Witch, an acting combinations that the festival audience has waited years to see. It must be said, in all honesty, that in portraying Sweeney Todd, Tom Ford sometimes looks the very picture of a demonic Slow Loris. Its not often, but when his eyes grow wide and flat with rage and his razor jerks over his head in a wrathful flourish, the resemblance to the Southeast Asian Primate is uncanny. It does not however take away any of the terror or anguish of Ford’s performance. Even before the first throat is cut, you can see that Todd’s soul is diminished and guttering, captive to his desire for revenge. When he does kill, there is a chilling efficiency to the act, marked by a small smile that cuts as deeply as the razor. His well of pain is just as visceral. Todd’s thirst for revenge is only overshadowed by the agony he feels of his loss: “And My Lucy lies in Ashes!/And I’ll never see my girl again”. It is a cry even more terrible than his pledges to cut our throats. Ford is possessed of a remarkable voice, that echoes off the cotton woods like they were halls of Marble, strong, articulate, and charged.

There is a very distinct resemblance to another, to this memory Ford’s greatest triumph to date, The Baker in the 08 Into the Woods. One feels that before the play the Kindly Baker and the Barber were the same men, and both suffer unbearable losses. The Baker manages to carry on, but Todd, his sorrow leads him plunging down the path to evil and destruction. The turning of a good man into an evil one is one of the most tragic things to witness. Which is why, when done well, it makes such great theater.

Leading Todd, and Ford, in that wild caper down the Garden Path is Brunner’s Lovett. If Todd has overtones of Ford’s Baker, Lovett is most reminiscent of Brunner’s unforgettable Arial in ’07, vibrating with liveliness, each moment choreographed from her acrobatics with cooking implements to the nervous placement of her tongue to her teeth. This is a lowbrow, brutally practical, (dare we say “corporate”) Lady M. always waging life, and death, in matters of cost, like groceries. She lives by the old adage “laugh and the world laughs with you” and oh do we ever laugh with her, this queen of Gallows humor. Her speaking tones, are quick and agile, while her singing voice, strong and clear, holds just as much character and expression.

Not just a sprite of wicked delight, Brunner also shows us with artists care the tender side of Mrs. Lovett’s brazenness. Her deep rooted affection for the unbalanced and unreciprocating “Mr. T”, though sometimes expressed with delightful and humorous straightforwardness, can also be delivered with a tender delicacy. She never heaps coal upon her Old Flame, but holds its heat close to her heart, certain that it will bloom. And when things start to go wrong, that devil-may-care attitude melts into terror, and the need for Todd’s love becomes all consuming, and for us, heartbreaking. We could almost forgive the horrors that she’s done, so pitiful is her desperation. Almost being the key word there.

Sweeney Todd may be one of the Gruesomest plays yet premiered on the ISF stage, but the buckets of blood, discordant notes and music hall villainy do not stop it from being great fun and a very poignant play. Brunner and Ford’s collaboration is everything that can be asked for, and the company does Sondheim’s music and the ancient story proud. For my own feelings upon finishing Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, I name the act two opener, as Mrs. Lovett’s tender new savories circulate through London: “God That’s Good!”

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