Stephen Sondheim grows on you. It may require a few tries to take root, but it still grows and if you don’t find yourself humming a riff from “Into the Woods” or “Sweeney Todd” the first few times you see one of them, well, that third time may be a charm.
I can’t say that I enjoyed “Sweeney Todd” the first time I saw it, but as a now-veteran and enthusiastic audience member I was as anticipatory as any fan to see how the Cotuit Center for the Arts would stage the musical thriller.
Suffice it to say that CCftA has done a memorable job of it. Its choice to place the chorus of 12 singers in the balcony rather than on the stage took me some time to acclimate to, but ultimately provided an intimate experience encouraging the audience to focus on the eight principals in the drama, rather than clutter the stage with incidental bodies.
Hell-bent on the type of revenge usually only embraced by whaling captains, the former Benjamin Barker, now going by the name Sweeney Todd (Christopher Schultz) has returned to Victorian London to exact his own brand of justice on Beadle Bamford and Judge Turpin—the judge having falsely accused Sweeney and had him banished for life in order to move in on Sweeney’s virtuous and beautiful wife, Lucy.
Back after 15 years, Sweeney is rescued at sea by the young and optimistic sailor Anthony Hope (Beau Jackett), struck at the idea of seeing the wonders of London. Sweeney, of course, has a different view of the city and his line, “At the top of the hole sit the privileged few. Making mock of the vermin in the lonely zoo,” can’t help but make one think of the proverbial “1 percent” and if you don’t nod your head in agreement, then you might be as naive as the appropriately named Mr. Hope.
The two uneasy friends part, but fate brings them back together after Anthony unknowingly falls in love with Sweeney’s daughter Johanna, now a ward of Judge Turpin.
Mr. Edwards has appeared at CCftA in several lead roles, including Don Quixote in “Man of LaMancha,” another character who loses his bearing on reality but to a completely opposite end result. As Sweeney, Mr. Edwards is both frightening and sympathetic. The world has done him wrong and it becomes all too clear, at least to Sweeney, that the powerful deserve to die because of the way they treat the weak, and the weak simply need to be put out of their misery. This realization, which comes in the song “Ephipany,” is effectively presented as Mr. Edwards comes out on stage cajoling not the chorus but members of the audience into his lethal barber’s chair with “All right! You, sir! How about a shave?”
Opposite Mr. Edwards is Bonnie Fairbanks as Nellie Lovett, the opportunistic pie maker. Mrs. Lovett is less the yin to Sweeney’s yang and more like the brains behind the operation. Ms. Fairbanks is exemplary in the role, one that’s more complex than that of the straightforward, hell-bent-on-revenge barber. Mrs. Lovett is a planner from the onset. The fact that she saved Benjamin Barker’s razors all those years ago reveals that she’s been planning, or at least hoping for, Barker’s return for years, and when he finally does turn up, despite his homicidal changes, she makes the most of it.
From her self-deprecating entrance with “Worst Pies In London” to her final declarations of love, Mrs. Lovett is a stage presence that’s hard to ignore.
Usually tales of revenge and obsession are best served cold, but in the case of Sweeney Todd, retribution is best served up in a meat pie, especially one containing “A Little Priest,” as Mrs. Lovett suggests to Mr. Todd after he offs his first victim and the practical widow doesn’t want to see the “nice, plump frame,” go to waste. The song leads to a gleeful and gory collaboration between the deranged barber and the delusional baker.
Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett, with the help of Tobias Ragg (Ari Lew) as an unwitting accomplice, have built themselves up a fine pair of establishments by the beginning of act II so much so that Mrs. Lovett envisions a possible retirement for the couple, singing “By The Sea” as Sweeney sits amusingly stone-faced, focused only on his plans of revenge.
Mr. Lew, who continuously proves himself in comedy, drama and as a vocalist at CCftA, is endearing as Toby, especially while performing “Not While I’m Around.” He also provides some comedic relief as three of Sweeney’s victims during the song “Johanna.”
No one remains untouched by the end of the show, not even pretty Johanna (Emma Fitzpatrick), who shows her mettle in her escape from Bedlam. Gioia Sabatinelli effectively performs the frantic “City on Fire,” as the Beggar Woman and enjoys a more comic role as Signor Pirelli.
Peter Cook is wicked through and through as the immoral Judge, who not only takes advantage of Lucy but decides after 15 years of being Johanna’s ward to marry the young girl himself. Alex Valentine likewise was a deliciously oily Beadle Bamford.
The set for the production is a reworking of “The British Bee Hive,” a drawing created in 1840 by satirist and illustrator George Cruikshank that depicts the hierarchy of London from the queen down to the tradesmen, all compartmentalized, each into their own hive cells. Sweeney and the residents of Fleet Street are at the lowest level, the drones, used up and subsequently tossed out.
My only complaint was that I couldn’t catch all the words to “A Little Priest,” which was a pity as they, like most of Mr. Sondheim’s lyrics, are clever.
“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” will be on stage at CCftA through Sunday, October 27. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 PM and Sundays at 2 PM. I wouldn’t wait too long to reserve tickets.