Sweeney Todd: Chills and Thrills


Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Produced by John Pacheco, Kevin Hassin
Directed By John Pacheco
Musical Direction by Grant Statchuk, Igor Saika-Voivod
McManus Theatre
Nov.29-Dec 8, 2012
Steven Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street may indeed be a musical drama, but it is also a house of horrors full of butchered corpses with ravenous revenge on the loose and all the rage. Whether just urban legend or not Sweeney Todd is remembered for his reign of terror during which a patron’s cut and shave took on a different shade of meaning while he surrendered up his sacrificial body parts in front of London’s demoniacal barber.

Sondheim based his work on Christopher Bond’s play whose material can be traced back to the Victorian “penny dreadfuls”, in particular to The String of Pearls which was a serial thriller that boasted much popularity among the working class youth. When adding what was usually nauseating narrative to Sondheim’s genius, music and lyrics  there emerges (in his own words) a “black operetta”.

The blood and guts plot of this musical is just that. Escaped convict turned barber has returned to London to finish off (literally) some unsettled business. His ultimate target is Judge Turpin. Egged on by his partner in crime (Mrs. Lovett), both embark on finally dispatching his Excellency and other unsuspecting folk along the way. Free enterprise flourishes for the couple as a meat pie business is started up and is looking very promising until it is discovered that Mrs. Lovett’s pie filling is in fact minced meat (literally) made from human flesh and bones. The jig is up when all is discovered by a simple-minded lad who is left at the end among the slaughter and carnage all around him. Aristotelian style catharsis manifests itself as the audience comes to terms or tries to with what they have just sat through for three hours. This is reminiscent of the Grand Guignol Theatre that was all the vogue in Paris around the turn of the century. One-act horror plays were performed for the Parisian demi-monde with audience members swooning and fainting as torture and fake blood upstaged the amoral drama on stage. Throughout Sweeney Todd there are multi-layered conventions often quite Shakespearean in scope: mistaken identity, dramatic irony, naturalism and tragedy. Then there is Sondheim’s powerfully evocative score ranging from the Dies Irae (mass for the dead) to French Impressionist harmonies throughout. Sweeney Todd is a complex piece both musically and dramatically. It needs a cast of enormous talent and sensibility to deliver the serious treatment it deserves.
Last night’s standing ovation was warranted as Director John Pacheco’s acting company took its audience on an unforgettable journey beyond the pale. There were audible sounds of gasps and sighs that signaled audience involvement throughout the production. Hats off to the creative team, especially to Rob Coles (Lighting Design) and Rob Cousins and Richard Sturgeon (Set Designand Construction). From a Victorian to a Tonsorial Parlour time and space were well served by a perfect ambiance. Todd’s barber chair worked seamlessly although I am almost positive there will be a few actors with bumps and bruises by the end of the run.
Not surprising that there were several strong performances among this talented cast.
Jim Doucette (Sweeney Todd) managed his part quite successfully. It seemed that nervous energy could have been an issue as he came on very strongly in some scenes and backed off in others. Pitch was definitely a problem in many of the musical numbers. Sweeney’s demonic side could have been more menacing. Doucette seemed to be focused on what line should come next, rather than on expressing unapologetic anger and rage during Todd’s epiphany. His target should be outwards towards all of humanity rather than just the expression of an inward ill-tempered soliloquy. Nevertheless, there were moments of skillful character acting. More confidence would have perfected this role.

Nicole Alcaidinho was sheer perfection as Mrs. Lovett, Todd’s indomitable sidekick. From beginning to end her characterization was portrayed with intelligence, subtlety and credibility. Her body language, singing ability comedic timing and English accent all worked in harmony producing a sweet and motherly type; yet underneath there were the evil machinations too. It was all there last night for this gifted young actress. Brava!
Bronwyn Powell was a very convincing Beggar Woman. Her wild antics and ravings were clearly authentic enough; however, her appearance did not convey this. A more crazed hairstyle and greater character make-up might be a possible solution.
Dan O’Hagan as Judge Turpin used his basso voice in such a way that there was no doubt as to what was on his lascivious mind or going on through his bumptious and lecherous mannerisms.
Jordan Henry (Tobias Ragg) and Chris Wood (Adolfo Pirelli) turned in solid and nuanced caricature performances, both displaying strong tenor voices. Jordan Henry’s Tobias might have been played with a little more vulnerability. His “Not While I’m Around” could have been more poignant. Chris Wood’s facial gestures in portraying Pirelli (even behind his stylized moustache), as with his other characters too,  worked well to his advantage.
The entire chorus could not have been better. Whether spitting out Sondheim’s tricky lyrics in rapid-fire fashion or acting as insane inmates in Fogg’s Asylum, this corps of singers and actors imbued the show with masterful choral singing and intense energy.
With only a small ensemble of musicians, Grant Statchuk and Igor Saika-Voivod (Co-Musical Directors) did not disappoint for a second in recreating this difficult Sondheim score. There was adequate orchestration to support the cast and a well-rehearsed chorus which together produced without too much trouble the beauty and power of Sondheim’s music and lyrics.
John Pacheco (Co-Producer/Director) and Kevin Hassin (Co-Producer) have put together a wonderfully entertaining and engaging show. Sweeney Todd by virtue of its musical, acting and staging demands requires top-notch people who understand the concept of theatricality and all its intricacies. John Pacheco knows his way about the theatre on and behind the stage. There were moments of perfection to be sure.
Let me cut to the quick (I couldn’t resist) – this Sweeney Todd is worth the price of admission and maybe even a second trip to the theatre. It is a  “grusical” as someone put it and this cast promises to scare and delight you with chills and thrills. Now the red striping on the barber pole makes a lot more sense.
/  4

Iain Paterson is a Musical Theatre Performer and founder of The Broadway Singers.

Photos by Ross Davidson

The Arts Project - Theatre