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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

Sweeny Todd at Lovers and Madmen

Or: Blades in Arms

Amidst mist and smoke, and an barrage of lighting tricks fresh from a Sting concert, we stumble into the midst of a Dickensian troupe of victorian area actors, with sooty cheeks wide smiles, chipper accents and a genuine pleasure to bring us a story of serial killers and the people who love them. Sweeney Todd (Nick Day) rescued from imprisonment in Australia has returned to london to find what has become of his wife, his daughter, Johanna (Phoebe Gonzales), and the men who’s lust imprisoned him on a trumped up charge, Judge Turpin (Scott Wolf) and Beadle Bamford (Dylan Pager). He takes up brooding under the wing of the neighborhood pie maker, and his old flame, the Mrs. Lovett (Alex Getlin) plotting his revenge and taking a rather dim view of humanity in general. But when his plans for revenge are delayed by numerous bloody circumstances, the baker concocts a plan to quench her hunger for profit and his thirst for blood. It is delicious.

Fun and frolicsome as the show within a show was, I cannot say that I agree with many of director Abby Pajakowski’s choices. The stylized gesture and exaggerated boundings used in many of the songs are (with the notable exception of “God That’s Good”, where it illustrated the piece’s cacophony and hare-pin mood swings as nothing else could) overly distracting. The alienating elements, such as “keeping score” of Sweeney’s kills, felt they had been included because they could be included, not so they could help the show or story. The “period” presentation many of characters caused those opportunities for connection and empathy Wheeler and Sondheim had so carefully marbled to be glossed over and swept aside (save for the deeply nuanced and wonderfully playful flirting of Mrs. Lovett toward her ‘Mr. T’ in “A Little Priest” and the excellently executed double romp, “By the Sea”). Though clever-clever these explorations only highlighted the blade of the musical, not the arm completed.

That said, I must say some of Pajakowski’s additions and adaptions did hit the nail on the head: the befittingly garish costumes of Cassie Bowers (oh those waistcoats, oh those pantaloons), the strangely beautiful writhe-off between a everyone’s favorite beggar (Charlotte Morris) and an terrified mad woman (Meg Lowey) during the devilishly difficult to stage “City on Fire”, and Daniel Bender Stern’s portrayal of Sweeney’s incidental victims, each with their own peculiar head piece merrily giggling as his throat is cut and he descends to an edible death (like The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, but very dark). And even without these gems, it would take more than a few unconventional conventions to spoil a masterpiece like Sweeney Todd: a real octopus of a musical that can changes its coloring in an eyes blink, terrifying and weirdly cuddly all at once.

Whatever qualms I may have against the staging I would have gladly gone again to catch another savor of Getlin’s voice: it reminds me nothing so much as a hearth fire, glowing warm and dancing with a little quaver, drawing you forward to thaw your ears in its gentleness but every now and then flinging forth a shower of sparks that remind you that it could burn the whole house down if it wanted. Day’s voice, in contrast, is a bonfire: powerful and majestic but rather comfortable once you find your optimum distance to it. Both leads also have a level hand on brighter sides of the character: Getlin nails Mrs. Lovett’s dead pan humor while Day gets past the rigor mortis of grief and rage that has bound so many of his predecessors, creating a thinking and feeling killing machine who approaches each slicing with fun and maybe even the tiniest smidgen of regret. Another notable performance is young Anthony Hope (Benjamin Barker) Sweeney’s rescuer and the captive Johanna’s suitor, who possess a remarkably cold and clear tenor, like a wineglass rim, and a well constructed fall from cheerful naiveté to desperation as his skylarking wings are torn from him.

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