ArtsWest Playhouse Unleashes <em>Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street</em>

Meat pies can be tricky. You never know who you might be eating…

At least, if you dine downstairs from Sweeney Todd’s barber shop. Who could imagine a Broadway musical about a vengeful barber/serial killer who slits customers’ throats and whose accomplice bakes the corpses into meat pies? The celebrated composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim could. His dark and devious tale of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street swept the Tony’s the year it arrived on Broadway. Now it’s playing at ArtsWest Playhouse and Gallery until July 1st.

Sondheim once said, “I prefer neurotic people. I like to hear the rumblings beneath the surface.” And Sweeney Todd characters have a surfeit of rumbling.

“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is a musical thriller with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler. Based on Christopher Bond’s 1973 play of the same name, the 1979 production was nominated for nine Tony Awards, winning eight, including Best Musical, Best Book, Best Original Score, Best Director (Harold Prince) as well as Tony’s for Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett and Len Cariou as Todd.

In addition to several revivals and the 2007 film version starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, the musical has also been presented by opera companies all over the world.

There has long been a debate as to whether Sweeney Todd was a real person. The alleged fictional character’s roots date back to serialized Victorian popular fiction, known as penny dreadfuls, published during the winter of 1846-47. Set in 1785, the story featured as its principal villain a certain Sweeney Todd and included all the plot elements that were used by Sondheim.

The original story may even date back to an earlier urban legend about dubious pie-fillings. Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers (1836–37) referenced such in “The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club” (1836-37), and then again in “Martin Chuzzlewit” (1843-44).

Sondheim’s grisly masterpiece follows an exiled man who, after escaping and returning to the city that cast him out, seeks revenge on Judge Turpin, who condemned him and stole his wife—the same judge who now claims Sweeney’s daughter Joanna as his ward.

Ben Gonio as Sweeney Todd. Photo credit John McLellan.

Ben Gonio as Sweeney Todd. Photo credit John McLellan.

The psychopathic Sweeney sets up business in an abandoned attic barbershop, where he forms an unlikely partnership with the woman downstairs, the pie baker Mrs. Lovett, herself an outcast with an axe to grind against the ruling powers. When the two hatch a gutsy plan for vengeance, the powerful elite, who have for years swept the powerless under the rug, are soon swallowed up by the same hungry masses they oppressed.

Todd dispatches his victims by slitting their throats while they sit in the barber chair, then he pulls a lever. His victims fall backward down a revolving trapdoor into the basement of his shop, After, of course, Todd has robbed them of their worldly goods,

Mrs. Lovett, his demented partner in crime, assists him in disposing of the bodies by baking their flesh into meat pies and selling them to the unsuspecting customers of her pie shop.

The score is one of Sondheim’s most complex, with stunning orchestrations by his long-time collaborator Jonathan Tunick. Relying heavily on counterpoint and rich, angular harmonies, his compositional style has been compared to Maurice Ravel, Sergei Prokofiev, and Bernard Herrmann, who scored Alfred Hitchcock films.

Eighty percent of the production is music; only twenty percent is spoken, and Sondheim singers are a special breed. Of course, they must have glorious voices, but they also must be able to convey the emotional and psychological depth his music demands. His songs often require a range of several octaves, the ability to handle tempos that change unexpectedly, all the while displaying amazing breath control and enunciation.

Many of “Sweeney’s” songs like “Epiphany” are nightmarish and intense. Others are beautiful, like “Green Finch and Linnet Bird,” and the tender “Not While I’m Around.” An audience favorite, “A Little Priest,” provides comic relief.

Co-directed by Matthew Wright and Eric Ankrim, their vision for “Sweeney Todd” places race, oppression and power squarely at the forefront of this new telling. The setting is different, but the problems stay the same. It’s like the adage says, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

The ArtsWest cast is led by Ben Gonio as Sweeney Todd, and Corinna Lapid Munter, as Mrs. Lovett. Gonio has been seen on NBC’s “Grimm,” among other credits, and Munter was seen in 5th Avenue Theatre’s productions of “The Sound of Music” and “The Music Man.”

Sondheim has proven his brilliance over and over. His prestigious career spans over five decades. He has received an Academy Award, eight Tony Awards (more than any other composer), a special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre, eight Grammy Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, the Laurence Olivier Award, and a 2015 Presidential Medal of Freedom.

For those few of you unfamiliar with “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” think about the TV series, “Dexter.” Now imagine that he sings. Then imagine he has a chum who bakes pies with questionable ingredients.

One more thing: Don’t bring the kiddies. It overflows with gore galore.

Sweeney Todd runs Thursday-Sunday through July 1st at ArtsWest Playhouse and Gallery; tickets are as follows: adults – $39.50, seniors 65+ $35; Students with valid school idea $19. Running time is approximately 2.5 hours with one intermission.Get tickets here.

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Starla Smith

Starla Smith

Starla Smith is a career journalist, writing features for such publications as The New Yorker, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Daily News, The Des Moines Register, Vibe and a prize-winning Gannett Newspaper. She helped launch Theater Week Magazine and eventually became its publisher. As a regular contributor to Playbill, her interviews and photos were featured in Playbill and Playbill-on-line. Smith was featured in the New York Times "Style" section for her "Word Portraits," specialized tributes, speeches, and presentation profiles. And she covered theater and features for City Search, Digital City, and the Tena Duberry WOW! Radio show. She previously served as astrology guru for Out Magazine, and she hastens to assure her readers that "Starla" is indeed her real name.

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