If you grew up in England, you might be familiar with a certain legend of a bogeyman called Sweeney Todd, a demented barber who slit the throats of his customers. If you're from anywhere else, you're probably more likely to be familiar with a certain musical about that legendary murderer. Either way, what a lot of people don't know is that, somewhere between the origin of the legend and the groundbreaking musical that bears his name, there came a phenomenal play by Christopher Bond titled Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. That play is currently being presented by the T. Schreiber Studio at the Gloria Maddox Theatre.
Seldom if ever performed in this country, Bond's Sweeney Todd is mostly known to people as the basis for the famous Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical. The play inspired Sondheim to craft a score that is highly operatic, and small wonder; the play is brimming with musicality. Its language is very much of the period (late 19th century), and Bond infuses the tale with smashing vitality. In fact, those familiar with the musical will recognize that some of its best lines were taken directly from Bond. The plots of both versions are identical, as well, and the play moves along at breakneck speed.
For the uninitiated, the story goes like this: A London barber is sent away on a fabricated charge by the corrupt Judge Turpin, who wants the barber's wife. The barber returns years later to find that his wife was seduced by the Judge and has subsequently died; he vows to avenge the murder and to retrieve his daughter, Johanna, from the Judge's clutches. To do so, the barber assumes the name of Sweeney Todd and resumes his business, enlisting the help of a young sailor named Anthony Hope (who has fallen in love with Johanna) and of Mrs. Lovett, a woman who bakes and sells meat pies in the space below Todd's old barber shop. As his plan for revenge slowly goes into effect, Todd cannot contain his rage and begins to methodically murder all of his customers, thereby providing fresh and juicy meat for Mrs. Lovett's pies. Both horror and hilarity ensue.
Though it is an old-style melodrama, Sweeney Todd manages to be truly hair-raising. There are humorous moments, particularly the flip manner in which Sweeney (Edwin Sean Patterson) and Lovett (Zoey O'Toole) deal with the bodies of Todd's victims. Also amusing are some of the minor characters, such as Pirelli (Gabriel Hernandez), an arrogant would-be Italian barber, and Tobias (David Patterson), a sweet-natured but dim young man. But, by and large this is an eerie story, not so much because of the murders but because of the pathos of the characters. Sweeney's piercing stare shows us that he is a man whose sanity has been destroyed by the injustice and pain he has suffered, while Judge Turpin's (J.M. McDonough) simultaneous self-righteousness and self-loathing make him a villain who is also genuinely human. The line between good and evil is twisted and blurred in such a way that Sweeney Todd becomes a true horror story, almost cathartic as it reaches its inevitable, tragic climax.
The spookiness of the tale is underlined by a skilled production team. Nathan Haverin's scenic design is ingenious, deceptively simple, and wonderfully effective. Tracy Christensen's period costumes are excellent in every way, and Frank Dendanto's lighting design is perfection. Daniel T. Denver's original music is certainly a highlight: beautiful, romantic, and dark, but never obtrusive. Director Marc Geller brings it all together seamlessly, making good use of the small space and keeping the action moving along smoothly.
The show is fortunate to have a fine cast, as well. Edwin Sean Patterson's Sweeney is always dangerous, yet he can be charming when it suits his purpose. Ellen Lindsay is remarkable as Johanna, bringing a rarely-seen depth to the young heroine prototype by giving her a quietly assertive strength and genuine warmth. Charlie Romanelli as Anthony makes for a solid romantic lead, and Tom Kulesa is very creepy as the slimy Beadle. Worthy of special note is Michael Edgar Murphy's turn as Jonas Fogg, the bizarre owner of an insane asylum; Murphy's delivery of Fogg's crazy reverie speech is mesmerizing.
There might be a few flaws in the production, but I can barely recall them. I do wish that the moment when Judge Turpin finally recognizes Sweeney was more palpable, and Tobias has a couple of passages that are a tad longer than necessary (though that's a fault of the play itself), but that's all I can come up with. Though one of the stage effects at the play's climax apparently didn't work at the performance I attended, I didn't even notice. I was too busy being horrified and heartbroken by a truly scary tale well told.