Sweeney Todd Review – Shaw Festival 2016

SWEENEY TODD – WHEN BARBER’S SING

A common horror theme involves the concept of one never knows who their neighbor is, which has always created dread and fear, and even more so today than it did in 1979, when Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street won numerous awards on Broadway. This musical is a horror thriller and a commentary on a largely depraved society led by a corrupt political system, rife with poverty and weak morals.

Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Judge Turpin (Marcus Nance) and Sweeney Todd (Benedict Campbell). Photo by Emily Cooper.

This legendary musical, marbled with schlock humour and stark realisms, make it a meaty addition to Shaw Festival’s 2016 season in Niagara-on-the-Lake. It runs until October 19th at the Festival Theatre, and is served-up well with a banquet filled with suspense, pathos, and compelling orchestral accompaniment.

Set in a dirty, dingy part of London, Todd is a broken man released from 15 years in prison for a trumped-up charge. However, Todd’s tormented soul and vengefulness turn him into a serial killer, who’s goal is to find his wife and his daughter, and kill Judge Turpin, who sentenced him. When Sweeney Todd (formerly Mr. Barker) initially returns to his flat in England, he discovers it’s run by a Mrs. Lovett, who has a meat pie business that is not prospering, because the house has a reputation for being haunted. She tells Todd that Mrs. Barker (his wife) is rumoured to have poisoned herself there, which is devastating for him. He has been longing to see her and his daughter for 15 years.

A BAD HAIR DAY

But Sweeney Todd is not just morbid, it’s sacrilegiously funny. One of the most humorous plot twists involves a Mr. Pirelli, a snake oil, sales peddler promising to end baldness with his secret hair tonic. Pirelli is also a barber, and Mr. Todd challenges him to a shaving and tooth extraction contest. Apparently, they wore many hats in those days. Mr. Pirelli’s expressive Italian singing and strong mannerisms are a big hit, even though he loses the contest and five shillings.

More importantly, Pirelli worked in Mr. Barker’s shop when he was a child. He remembers the original look of Todd’s razor handle and quality design and returns to the barbershop to blackmail Todd, which unleashes his bitterness and malevolence of mankind. Todd quickly slits Pirelli’s throat and throws him in a trunk to hide him from Mrs. Lovett. At first, Mrs. Lovett’s discovery of the dead body sends her into a frightened crying fit, until she is told money is involved. Well, after that, the thrifty Mrs. Lovett becomes Todd’s biggest fan and partner in crime.

PIES — TO DIE FOR
Who would’ve known Pirelli’s skinny carcass would be so tender and tasty, even better than a cat’s. Mrs. Lovett has discovered that seasoning goes a long way toward connoisseur cannibalism. Just add a tasty crust and the pies become so flavourful that they are to die for – and many people did. While this may sound unbelievably crass, Stephen Sondheim was able to devise many laughable lyrics on the art of eating people from various professions. For example, what would a priest taste like, or a musician? Answer: stringy. Sondheim is commended for composing many songs that sound both virtuous and divine to demonic, especially for the ensemble of singers in songs like: City on Fire and The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.

In the upcoming months, Todd lures many undesirable people to his new barber chair that is now connected to a trap door and shoots transporting bodies into large ovens in the basement. Outstandingly portraying crazy-evil with humour is Corrine Koslo as Mrs. Lovett, who’s business is now booming, with plenty of disposable income. Koslo is wonderful in wacky songs like The Worst Pies in London, Parlour Songs and Wait. Lovett eventually falls in love with Sweeney Todd and wants to become his wife, which becomes a burning issue later on.

LOVE AND CHAOS

Todd, however, is more concerned with finding his daughter, Joanna than getting married a second time. His daughter had become the ward of Judge Turpin for many years. Now grown into a woman, Joanna is being groomed to be the judge’s wife. Turpin’s perversions were driving him to distraction, and he even tries to keep Joanna in seclusion away from other men. However, a young sailor, named Anthony sees her one day and instantly falls in love with her. They start to meet secretly.

Johanna (Kristi Frank) and Anthony Hope (Jeff Irving). Photo by David Cooper.
Johanna (Kristi Frank) and Anthony Hope (Jeff Irving). Photo by David Cooper.

Coincidentally, a while ago when sailing back to England, Anthony came across a man floating in the sea and saved him. That man was Sweeney Todd, and they became good friends. While the sailor doesn’t know Todd is Joanna’s father, the two join forces in trying to free her from the judge, especially after she is placed in a mental asylum as punishment for refusing to marry the judge, which is another surprising twist in this well-written storybook by Hugh Wheeler.

When the sailor comes to Todd for advice, Todd tells Anthony to pose as a hatmaker, because mental institutions shave all the patients’ heads and sell their hair for money. However, Anthony’s ruse fails, and it turns into a shootout, which adds a great deal of excitement and action needed in this lengthy play. Joanna disguises herself in sailor clothes and is sent by Anthony to Sweeney Todd’s to hide, but when Sweeney Todd finds her, he thinks she is a he, and is snooping around in his business. Of course, he offers her a shave and a haircut, which creates a lot of hair-raising tension for the audience. But by the short hairs on her chinny-chin-chin, Joanna is saved by Anthony.

SUCCESS IS NOT SO SWEET-EY

The smell of success, in this case, is horribly odorous. When Mr. Beadle, a health inspector for the city, appears to check what the bad stench is wafting from their building, the situation becomes increasingly problematic. However, this tense moment is turned into comic relief when Mr. Beadle suddenly decides to play Mrs. Lovett’s organ, and coaxes her into a silly, sing-a-long.

However, the developmentally delayed young man named Tobias, who helps them from time to time, has figured out there is something seriously wrong with Mr. Todd. Tobias is working in the basement when the body of Judge Turpin arrives unexpectedly down the chute. Sweeney Todd’s long-awaited victory and revenge are short-lived. Twisted fate and history, equally befitting that of a violent-crazed murderer, creeps up and bring about his unpredictable demise. His death can be more climactic, but the creators choose to end on a higher note, so the ensemble revisits singing The Ballad of Sweeney Todd. Benedict Campbell generates an ample amount of empathy for a vengeful man, still imprisoned by his own demons.

The ensemble of singers and dancers that represent society, ghosts of Sweeney’s past and inmates from a mental institution rang out true and strong capturing the essence of the drama. The whisperings of the bag lady add a sense of mystery. While about ten minutes of fat can be cut from this play, it is an amazing undertaking with a monolithic set and masterful songwriting that is delightfully demented, and at times combines two storylines or scenes.

In closing, a zombie version of Sweeney Todd should be well supported, and meat pies will never touch my plate, again.

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