Directors Mathew Wright and Eric Ankrim do not fall short of “musical thriller” in their latest production, Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. The cozy ArtsWest Playhouse places the audience in the midst of Sweeney’s madness, making for chilling performances of the musical’s classics such as “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.” The talented cast is entrancing theater-goers with their voices through Saturday, July 1st.
Sweeney Todd first appeared in the penny dreadful The String of Pearls in 1846 as a murderous London barber. Sweeney hands over the bodies of his victims to pie shop owner, Mrs. Lovett, who bakes them into meat pies. Since then Sweeney and his story have undergone many adaptions which eventually evolved into Christopher Bond’s play Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in 1973. In 1979, Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler created a musical adaption of Bond’s play. Their version currently running at ArtsWest Playhouse.
Viewers are introduced to Sweeney Todd (Ben Gonio) while he reluctantly makes his return to a corrupt-ridden, Victorian London. He encounters the offbeat Mrs. Lovett (Corinna Lapid Munter) who steals the show as soon as she begins her performance of “The Worst Pies in London.” In this scene she reveals to Sweeney that she too is down on her luck. Munter brings incredible energy and spunk to her performance; viewers will find themselves rooting for Mrs. Lovett despite her being one of the “bad guys.” Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett connect over their misfortunes and set out to seek vengeance on London’s elites. Judge Turpin (Jeff Church) is at the top of their hit list. He is responsible for the death of Sweeney’s wife which Sweeney feels the obsessive need to avenge.
In all, the cast is very musically-gifted which is evident from their first haunting number. The musical treat continues throughout the entire production. Special attention should be paid to Emilie Hanson’s performance of Johanna Barker and Jimmie Herrod’s performance of the Beggar Woman. Hanson’s beautiful voice coupled with the heartbreaking ballad written for the part of Johanna is the recipe for damsel in distress. Herrod is perfectly disturbing as the suggestive Beggar Woman. She is perceived to be crazy despite her ability to provide background info as well as accurately foreshadow the play’s apocalyptic end. Herrod’s operatic voice lends itself to the tragedy that is to ensue.
The British accents and fast-paced songs made it difficult at times to track the characters evolving aspirations and motives throughout the play. The compromised pronunciation is most evident during Mrs. Lovett’s “Poor Thing” in which she recounts the separation of Sweeney from his wife, Lucy. The scene at the Judge’s ball becomes a little jumbled; a scene that is crucial to understanding Sweeney’s motives.
The costumes exhibited a lot of variation in terms of what time period they appeared to represent. During Act 1, Mrs. Lovett wore pants over her apron while Tobias Ragg donned camo pants and a hoodie. Additionally, the play opens with Sweeney listening to the radio. Although this did not affect my enjoyment of the production, I spent several minutes debating whether or not Wright and Ankrim’s Sweeney Todd was modernized or if it took place in the mid-1800s like the original.
If you want to indulge your dark side pay the cast of Sweeney Todd a visit; you will not be disappointed by their mesmerizing voices and dry, quick-witted humor.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, by Stephen Sondheim. ArtsWest Playhouse and Gallery, 4711 California Ave SW, Seattle, WA 98101. Thursday-Saturday 7:30, Sunday 3:00 til July 1. Tickets and info: www.artswest.org or (206) 938 0339