SALT LAKE CITY — After twenty years, the musical thriller Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has returned to Pioneer Theatre Company, this time directed by Karen Azenberg. The musical, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and a book by Hugh Wheeler, first premiered on Broadway in 1979, winning several Tony Awards, including best musical.
Considered by many to be one of Sondheim’s best works, as well as one of the greatest musicals of all time, the dark and bloody tale is a familiar one. After years of exile, Sweeney Todd (played by Kevin Earley) returns to London to practice his craft as an expert barber, and to seek revenge on the judge who wrongfully sentenced him. Todd sets up his barber shop above the shop of local pie-maker, Mrs. Lovett (played by Anne Tolpegin). The two form a special bond, and as Sweeney Todd allows his rage and vengeful nature to get the best of him, turning him into a serial killer, Mrs. Lovett finds herself using Sweeney’s victims to her advantage as an integral ingredient to her meat pies.
Upon entering the theatre, I was immediately struck by the splendor of the set. Scenic designer George Maxwell created a workable, complex set that functioned perfectly for the production. Set in 19th century London, a beautiful Victorian looking backdrop of the city hangs upstage, and a slight steampunk style is reminiscent in the rest of the set, fitting for the time period on the brink of the industrial revolution. In the middle of the stage are large and rusted looking spinning gears, as well as metal ramps that created levels and dynamic stage pictures. I also appreciated the trap door which Sweeney Todd enters from, as well as the ramp that could appear from the barber chair to allow Sweeney’s victims to slide into the basement. The most impressive stage element, however, was the oven used to cook the meat used for the pies. The realistic looking fire and smoke was impressive and a delightful touch.
Maxwell’s set was largely enhanced and complimented by Paul Miller’s lighting design. I greatly enjoyed the way the mood could shift so easily with a new lighting cue, with the set becoming more dark and sinister, or bright and hopeful. The backdrop in particular was remarkable in how it seemed to change in appearance under the different lighting throughout the play, or because of the smoke effect that could make it appear smoggy. Also notable were the shadows created behind a large sheet used in the insane asylum scenes, which created genuinely frightening images. The use of stark and bright red lighting added to the fear inducing aspects of the musical. Often accompanying the red lighting was a jarring, very loud train whistle sound (sound design by Allan Branson) which frequently signaled a death and served as an alarming reminder of the horror in the piece.
As Sweeney Todd, Earley was focused and committed to his character, and it was easy to see his motivation. In the early musical number “My Friends,” Earley makes it clear the odd connection that he has with his shaving razors. There is almost a lust for them that I found enticing, and the audience begins to see his sinister nature come out. Earley does a fantastic job of building a menacing suspense as the musical progresses. He communicates his drive and desire for murder and blood lust well, while keeping an antsy impatience for vengeance at the forefront.
Tolpegin as Mrs. Lovett is as talented in her role (or perhaps more so). During the musical number, “Worst Pies in London,” it was a delight to see her chopping real dough and making a mess with real flour on stage. Tolpegin is an incredibly skilled storyteller in her animated and bold actions, and expressive voice. In “By the Sea,” she truly paints a verbal picture of the future life she envisions with Sweeney. I enjoyed the chemistry between Earley and Tolpegin as they engage in cute banter and develop a genuine, though brief, relationship, even while their characters’ motivations don’t entirely align.
All of the acting from the rest of the cast was superb, as one would expect from a production at Pioneer Theatre. The leads and the ensemble kept me entertained, sometimes a difficult feat to achieve in large scale musicals. I remained interested in the story, and continually swept up by the fantastic voices of the cast, and Sondheim’s hauntingly beautiful score. While I was familiar with the musical soundtrack, it was a luxury to hear the live orchestra and become engulfed in the music direction by Phil Reno. While all of the singing throughout was impressive, Delaney Westfall, a Utah native, was the standout as Johanna. Her lovely classical voice was always refreshing in the midst of the macabre subject matter.
While I enjoyed almost everything about Pioneer’s production, including the skilled direction by Azenberg, I found myself disappointed by what I felt was an anti-climactic and unmotivated ending, specifically in relation to the character Tobias Ragg, played by Blake Stadnik. While I understand the reasoning behind the character’s actions, I would have liked to see Stadnik express this motivation better on stage in order to make a more sensible or dramatic moment.
This minor element aside, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is definitely worth the time of any fan of Sondheim or the horror genre. I found the juxtaposition of sweet sounding music and just enough comedic elements against the murderous subject matter to be gratifying and enlightening, providing an interesting examination into the human condition when people are driven mad by their selfish or vengeful desires.