As the musical opens, Benjamin Barker (who, now calls himself Sweeney Todd) returns home to 1840's London (after being sent to jail for wrongful imprisonment), seeking revenge on those responsible for the rape of eventual death of his wife Lucy, including a ruthless judge (Turpin) who exiled him to Australia and became legal guardian to his then-infant daughter Johanna.
Resuming his former trade as a barber, he forms a partnership with landlady and pie-shop keeper Mrs. Nellie Lovett, who, after a murder is committed, decides to toss the body into the furnace, but not before using human flesh as the main ingredient in her meat pies. Once the bodies begin to pile up, things become quite enterprising for the duo.
More pies. More money. More blood. More human remains.
A recipe for success?
With the groundwork laid - barber and baker collude to murder nasty Londoners and bake their remains into pies - "Sweeney Todd" garishly illuminates the cannibalistic pastry scenario with in-your-face, ruthless amorality, making it entirely palatable and comically irresistible. That is, of course, until the plot thickens and things become darker and darker and darker. Nonetheless, it's a well-heeled concept that Wheeler fuels with thrill, spill and rapt imagination giving Sondheim enough fleshly flutings and exponents to musicalize the melodrama at hand. It all comes together splendidly.
Winner of eight Tony Awards (1979) including Best Musical and Best Musical Score, "Sweeney Todd" is told through more than 35 songs written by Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics), sung entirely by the characters of Sweeney Todd, Mrs. Nellie Lovett, Anthony Hope, Tobias Ragg, Beadle Bamford, Judge Turpin, Joanna Barker Turpin, the Beggar Woman, Adolfo Pirelli and members of the "Sweeney Todd" ensemble. They are (in order of being sung in Act I and Act II): "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," "No Place Like London," "The Barber and His Wife," "The Worst Pies in London," "Poor Thing," "My Friends," "Green Finch and Linnet Bird," "Ah, Miss," "Johanna," "Pirelli's Miracle Elixir," "The Contest (Part 1 and Part 2)," "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd (reprise)," "Johanna (Mea Culpa)," "Wall," "Pirelli's Death," "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd (reprise)," "Kiss Me, Part I," "Ladies in Their Sensitivities," "Kiss Me, Part II," "Pretty Women," "Epiphany," "A Little Priest," "God, That's Good," "Johanna (Act II Sequence)," "I Am A Lass," "By the Sea," "Wigmaker Sequence," "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd (reprise)," " "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd (reprise)," "The Letter," "Not While I'm Around," "Parlor Songs (I, II and III)," "Fogg's Asylum," "City on Fire!" "Searching," "Finale Sequence" and "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd (epilogue)."
Mixing nightmarish revenge and dicey counterpoint with a keen, bawdy sense of humor, Sondheim's fierce approach toward the subject matter is marked by dynamic flexibility, great build-up, poised lyricism, edgy rasping, intimate eloquence and balanced seriousness. Added touches of humor and acidity also convey the faceted nature of the piece as does the composer's inspired use of melody, arrangement, syncopated rhythms and operatic undercurrents. One of his best musical score's, "Sweeney Todd's" most significant accomplishment is its ability to mix Gregorian chant and opera with both contemporary, popular music, psychological intrigue, black humor and repeated variants and reconfigurations of evoked musical commentary and thrust-forward narration.
To bring the music of "Sweeney Todd" to life, BMA/BRT has assembled a first-class team of live musicians headed by co-musical directors Blake Allen and Matt Moisey (doubling as keyboardist and conductor) and band members Elliot Wallace (percussion), Jessie Englander (reeds), Inna Ramen Langerman (violin), Samantha Marcial (cello) and Christie Echols (bass). Adapted and interpreted with fury, drive, drama and articulation, the rolling complexities of Sondheim's music are expressed with speed and temperament, accentuated with acknowledged doses of passion, grace, foundation and orchestral construct.
The star of the show being the music, both Allen and Moisey work especially hard to get everything right, which, of course they do, through the evolution of the "Sweeney Todd" story. Exquisite detail and impeccable timing bring out the emotional intensity of Sondheim's ravishing score with the orchestra working full throttle to create a sonic, engaging and immersive experience with plenty of buzz, energy, execution and passion. Vocally, the innate musicality of everyone involved reveals a wonderful sense of tone, clarity and control, coupled with a complete understanding of how to make their voices soar with the inhabited, operatic connection set forth by Sondheim, thus producing pristine vocals (every single lyric is audible) that sound even more convincing and more passionate, than they already are.
Crucial to any production of "Sweeney Todd" is the staging itself, which, here, is dependent entirely on the artistic and creative vision of director/choreographer Audra Bryant whose Broadway Method Academy/Black Rock Theater credits include "Cabaret," "Annie" and "The Little Mermaid." A constant presence throughout the two-act musical, Bryant sets "Sweeney Todd" loose - so to speak - with arresting details, visuals, choices, themes and ideas that bring necessary edge and urgency to the proceedings, matched by noticeable precision and punch that makes the narrative swirl, twist, turn and energize with inhabiting thrust, pathos, imagination and opportunity.
Throughout "Sweeney Todd," Bryant's direction complements Sondheim's musical vision, Wheeler's writing, the fable's penny dreadful inspiration, the age and time period of 19th century London, the intertwined relationships of the central characters, the story's dark, authentic flourishes, the macabre undercurrents and the stench, filth and decay of the musical's Fleet Street setting. It's all primed, plotted, explored and presented with an unmistakable stamp of engagement and authenticity reminiscent of work's presented at London's Donmar Warehouse, New York's Circle in the Square and Hartford's HartBeat Ensemble.
Staging "Sweeney Todd," Bryant opts for a three-quarter, immersive directorial conceit of certainty, invention and brilliantly-tailored ideas and choices that complement and nurture her core, hell-of-a-ride tactics and moody, motivational soundscape. In turn, the story's revenge, bloodshed, destruction and desperation unravels with thrilling force as does Bryant's decided blueprint of movement, blocking, positioning, grouping and melodramatic climax. Here, everything is addressed with importance, definition and purpose from how a character is murdered (throats are slit with no stage blood, for example) and removed from the stage (very clever, zombie/robot like maneuvers are employed) to how someone unwraps a tasty meat pie, walks into a fiery oven or becomes part of a Fleet Street chorus to sing various choral reprises of the title character's ever-evolving tale of revenge.
As director, Bryant gives a fresh, invigorating look to the production without sidestepping its original nightmarish vision. She also brings added momentum to the comic spectacle to Mrs. Lovett's pie making, the Beggar Woman's springboard of jigs and feverish sexual innuendo, Pirelli's showy elixir presentation and the lovestruck awe and innocence prevalent in Anthony's sudden romantic attachment to the beautiful Johanna. The multiple onstage deaths of Todd's unsuspecting victims are also contrasted with heavy doses of ingenuity, savagery and spotlit undercutting.
In the role of Sweeney Todd, Tate McElhaney delivers a strong, thrilling and emotional portrayal of a man and skilled Fleet Street barber whose rage and thirst for revenge transforms him into a dangerous, demonic serial killer. Rose Messenger takes the stage with equal command, playing pie shop owner Mrs. Nellie Lovett with comic counterpoint and position, reveling in her newfound culinary skills (no pussy cats for catching; only grinded body parts and flesh) and bake shop profits. Her nervous laughter and cherry ebullience is a genuine source of delight as are her comic expressions, line delivery and character posturing and positioning. Vocally, both she McElhaney tackle the vocals of Sondheim's iconic score with celebrated fervor, sweeping surge, playful repartee and showpiece bravura. Their vocal attachment to the material illuminates the complexity and skill of his musical artistry with intoxicating zeal, grandeur and lush imagination.
Standing tall and proud oozing plenty of sustained class, lust and infatuation for his young ward Johanna, Matthew Danforth (resplendent in vintage leather gentleman's topcoat finery) slides into the role of the self-flagellating Judge Turpin with extraordinary impact, entitlement and moody sensuality. Sasha Spitz chimes beautifully as the lovely, sweet-voiced Johanna. David Littlefield's Adolfo Pirelli is both cunning con man and scrum deviant. As Anthony Hope, the young sailor who befriends Todd and later, falls instantly in love with Johanna, Spencer Stanley puts a natural, worthy, romantic spin on his vocally perfect character while Nick Pattarini makes all the right moves as Beadle Bamford, the slippery church officer and lackey of the nasty Judge Turpin.
Eliza Levy's portrayal of the Beggar Woman, a downtrodden character who is later revealed as Todd's long-lost wife Lucy, works brilliantly in the all-too-important ticking clock of the story. As the naive Tobias Ragg, Jackson Wood invites the audience into his story with a sensitive, well-crafted portrait of a young man asked to turn the handle of the meat grinder three times round for the making of Mrs. Lovett's tasty meat pies. He also gets to sing the beguiling "Not While I'm Around," one of Sondheim's signature character ballads.
Strong acting and vocal performances are also given by "Sweeney Todd" ensemble members Ryan Kennedy, Ranease Brown, Ethan Horbury, Caroline Marchetti, Abby Tucker, Isabel Rina and Nathan Syzmanski. All of them not only have exceptional singing voices, but their inhabited connection to the material heightens the dark and eerie suspense and mayhem they create on the BMA/BRT stage.
Jarring, yes. But sensational, every step of the way.