Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is considered one of the greatest—if not the greatest—musicals ever written. This is quite a twist of fate; by most conventional measures, there are few shows that seem less destined for success. When it opened the show was completely unconventional, with a blood-drenched storyline that seemed ready-made to send audience members racing for the exits in horror. It is not surprising that its original Broadway run took a sizable financial hit, and its original London run fared even worse.
Yet the show didn’t die a quiet death after its Broadway closing, but rather jumped from greater to greater success. Over time, audiences adjusted to the idea of a musical in the horror genre, and came to appreciate how boldly Sweeney Todd shattered convention and redefined what a musical could be. After repeated listens, music lovers fell under the spell of the score’s limitless depths and marveled at how Sondheim was able to create and build a sense of relentless tension that lasted through the final chord. Audiences also came to rally behind the deliciously complex characters—characters who are almost devoid of any redeeming value but are just too mesmerizing to stop watching. Plus, there is the greater appreciation for the hilarious moments of dark comedy, which paradoxically release and tighten the underlying tension. We’ve finally caught up to Sweeney Todd’s brilliance.
The show is… well, a perfect musical feast. And from the moment I first saw it (strangely enough, while I was in the seventh grade), I have unabashedly loved it.
Theater Latté Da has just launched a new production of Sweeney Todd, which follows their hugely successful production of Sondheim’s Into the Woods from last season. To be brief, this is a riveting, hands-down fantastic production… easily one of the best I’ve seen. Performances run through October 25 at the Ritz Theater in Minneapolis, and you definitely should snap up any ticket you can lay your hands on.
The show is billed “a musical thriller,” and I hate to provide too many spoilers. But in outline, the plot comes from a Victorian melodrama. Sweeney Todd was a barber who was unjustly shipped off to the penal colony at Botany Bay on trumped-up charges. He escapes some years later and returns to seek his wife and daughter… as well as revenge against those who wronged him.
Theater Latté Da brings the drama to vivid life. To begin, the sets and scenic design are brilliant. Set in London around 1849, this production feels like it takes place along a slack-water bend of the River Thames, in a squalid squatter camp surrounded by the broken detritus of centuries that has washed up around it. Occasionally pieces of the wreckage are pulled out to serve as props or set pieces for a moment, before slowly falling back into the indistinct rubbish. It is a perfect, nightmarish setting that seems to embody Sweeney’s snarl of vengeance when he first arrives: “I’ll live. If I have to sweat in the sewers or in the plague hospital, I’ll live… and I’ll have them!” This is the same mantra of everyone trapped there; they are all desperate souls trying to survive in a bleak world that’s slowly crushing them.
Peter Rothstein’s direction is also spot-on. Rothstein uses a smallish cast of 10 performers playing overlapping parts, some of which remain onstage to observe the unfolding drama from hidden corners of the set. The effect is to create an acute sense of claustrophobia and tension. Some productions make Sweeney Todd larger-than-life, with characters thundering at the heavens in rage, but Rothstein goes for intimacy. His concept keeps the emphasis on humans who are pushed to far by a corrupt, dehumanizing system until they snap. It is this underlying current of broken humanity that makes the story so tragic and terrible… could we, too, be so broken if we were pushed to such horrible extremes?
The performances are sensational. Mark Benninghofen is a well-known, veteran performer here in town, but his role as Sweeney marks his debut in a musical. And what a debut! His coiled rage and nervous energy are apparent from the (memorable) moment he appears on the stage, yet in keeping with the overall concept he never goes over the top. His terrible intensity drives the show from beginning to end and provides a framework for all that transpires.
He is matched perfectly with Sally Wingert, who plays Sweeney’s landlady and accomplice in crime, Mrs. Lovett. And this is a performance for the ages. Back when the musical debuted on Broadway, Angela Lansbury won a Tony for her brilliantly daffy performance in the part. Winger is much more down to earth, again following the much more human-size conception. It is still a wonderfully comedic performance, but one driven by desperation and cold calculation. There is a terrible wisdom to her portrayal, and an aching sense of need.
The smaller parts are also strongly cast. James Ramlet is fantastic as the evil Judge Turpin who sets the plot in motion. His resonant bass isn’t just rich, it is unfathomably dark. It sends a shiver each time he opens his mouth… memorably so in the unbearably taut duet with Sweeney, “Pretty Women.”
Tyler Michaels delivers a shattering performance of “Not While I’m Around,” one of the musical’s most gripping expressions of trusting, innocent love—hearing Mrs. Lovett turn that same song into an expression of ironic menace a few moments later is devastating. Matthew Rubbelke is strong as the sailor Anthony Hope, and Sara Ochs captures both the insanity and humanity of the beggar woman. In brief, the entire cast was wonderful, and fit precisely with Rothstein’s overall vision.
As a final note, I was happy that Sweeney Todd still has the power to not just thrill, but to terrify audiences. I went in wondering if the show’s status as a classic would dilute its power to shock; after a variety of performances, including four here in the Twin Cities over the past 15 years or so, is it as familiar as Fiddler on the Roof? I mean, the violent realism of Carmen once shocked the public, but now the piece is considered a chestnut. Have we reached that same moment with Sweeney Todd?
Not to worry. Several folks around me mentioned that they knew a few of the songs from the show, but had never actually seen it—and observing their reactions was a treat. Overall, the audience’s responses convinced me that the show remains a white-knuckle thrill ride that maintains its power to scare.
All in all, this is a sensational production of a sensational show that leaves me excited to see the rest of the season’s offerings. Get your tickets while you can.