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Theatre Review: Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

The Ensemble | Photo by Craig Schwartz

When I first saw the poster, I was incredibly excited to watch this show. As someone who has worked on Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and who has watched the multiple movies based on the story, I had a certain expectation when going to see this. Of course, I didn’t expect the blood bath one would receive from Evil Dead: The Musical or even the Scottish play, but I did expect some amazing effects and a little blood at the very least.

There’s more blood on the program than in the performance. That’s never a statement I thought I’d be making about a performance of Sweeney Todd. The musical, for those unfamiliar with it, features a barber, escaped from prison to get revenge, an act he accomplishes by giving the closest shaves a man could ever want, or perhaps in this case, not want. Once the victims have been relieved of their need to ever shave again, Todd’s partner-in-crime Ms. Lovett, who is head-over-heels for him, bakes the victims into delicious meat pies to serve to the masses. It’s generally gory good fun for a while, with a lot of dark humor, but like many great Sondheim musicals do, it features scenes and situations that are more tragic and thoughtful. Allowing us to empathize with the barber and his deeds, the play ultimately condemns his actions in an unforgettable climax with Shakespearean roots.

This particular adaptation, directed by Julia Rodriguez-Elliot with musical direction by Rod Bagheri, does have some remarkable performances and tech elements, but left us with a five o’clock shadow, if you get my drift. As a very censored adaptation, moments of violence happened in darkness, were highlighted by red lighting and a parachute element that never worked quite right, or were simple and lacking any sort of blood effect. While blood, of course, isn’t necessary for a great show, it did feel like it was missing in this one and could have helped quite a bit to sell the barber’s “demon” characteristic.

Harrison White, Geoff Elliott, and Cassandra Marie Murphy | Photo by Craig Schwartz

The other element that was a little off-putting was some of the casting and character choices, in terms of tone. This portrayal of Sweeney by Geoff Elliott, who was excellent in A Christmas Carol this winter, is a bit goofy and even playful at times, lacking that meaner, darker edge that guides him on his murderous revenge spree. This may have been an attempt at humanizing him more, but it undercuts the character in multiple ways. He’s no longer scary and therefore neither is the show, which is one of the main appeals of going to see Sweeney Todd. One of the themes is the dehumanization of society (specifically the industrial revolution in this case), so humanizing him more works against that theme, making his tragedy less symbolic. While I did enjoy his goofiness and laughed, it did feel a bit out of place in a dark comedy.

Adding to this confusion were the news releases discussing how the impoverished and homeless characters were meant to have connections to modern Los Angeles. It’d take a big stretch of the imagination to get there. From the news releases, I imagined the characters would be wearing costumes that would be reminiscent of the homeless of our area: the poor wearing mismatched shoes, slightly more modern clothing mixed with Victorian elements. I imagined the set would have graffiti or tents or shopping carts symbolizing the fact that our world hasn’t changed much since Todd’s time. The musical looks like a period piece and it is; for that, it was very well done. However, it did not bring that extra depth of holding a mirror to our society to see that we, in fact, still create demons today.

The ages of the characters and casting confuse that issue even more. Sweeney appears to be as old as the Judge or older, which makes his own relationship with his young, beautiful wife a bit reminiscent of the issues poor Johanna (Joanna A. Jones) is currently living through.

The Ensemble | Photo by Craig Schwartz

Despite these elements, there’s a lot to enjoy here still. The lighting design by Ken Booth is particularly unique and memorable. Whether it’s the large fan silhouette on the floor surrounded in a sickly green light, the red and orange glow of the basement lighting in the floor as the fires of the furnace burn below them, or the magnificent drop of mood lighting in the waning moments from above, each of these designs makes the stage a sight to behold.  Cassandra Marie Murphy as Ms. Lovett captures that combination of being hopelessly in love, hopeless, and at her core, fighting to survive. Her voice along with that of James Everts as Anthony Hope, the lovelorn young man pining after Sweeney’s estranged daughter, may be worth the price of a ticket alone. His voice shines with a clarity and pureness that fits his character perfectly. Accompanying this amazing voice is a small chamber orchestra featuring keys and strings, intelligently incorporated into the set. Kasey Mahaffy’s Pirelli is also quite a blast, and he plays the character loose with fluctuating accents and the charm of a true con man.

A Noise Within consistently delivers and this is the first show I’ve seen there that’s taken a step back. That being said, a step back for them is still two or three steps ahead of many other theatres, and if you’re a fan of the musical or want to see something different than your normal play, then this show is worth your time and money. And I think, despite some questionable casting decisions and maybe a little too much talking to the press, you will probably have a bloody, but “not-too-bloody,” good time.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is showing Thursdays, beginning on March 7th, at 7:30pm, Fridays at 8:00pm, Saturdays at 2:00pm and 8:00pm, and Sundays at 2:00pm until March 17th. March 1st, 8th, and 15th will include an exciting opportunity to talk to the cast and artists. A Noise Within Theatre is located at 3352 E Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena.

Joanna J. Jones, James Everts, Harrison White and cellist Karen Hall | Photo by Craig Schwartz
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Erika Newman
Erika Newman
Erika Newman moved to California in 2015. Her experience includes teaching theatre to all ages, designing and creating props/set pieces, directing productions, and currently working as a theatre business manager at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre.

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