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Review: Sweeney Todd – Sondheim’s Masterpiece Needs Better Chops (but worth a go)

On Wednesday, I saw the last preview of Vertigo Mystery Theatre’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, my fourth show in eight days with the Calgary Musicals Meetup Group, my most intense week in Calgary Musical Theatre Month.

Unlike Cats, which I saw the night before, Sweeney Todd is one of a few of my favourite musicals, and from what he tells us, the same can be said for Vertigo’s outgoing artistic director, Mark Bellamy, who chose to direct this as his swan song after over 25 years of fantasizing about doing it. Vertigo has occasionally added a “mystery” musical to its repertoire. Last season it was Nevermore and a few years ago, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. There are not a lot of choices in the mystery-musical field, so Sweeney Todd would naturally be high on anyone’s hit list, even if they weren’t a Sondheim fan. Despite its complexities, Sweeney Todd is produced fairly regularly – it was done in 2004 by Calgary Opera, and in 2009 by Front Row Centre. I saw the former (and loved it), but not the latter. It’s one of those essentially thru-sung cross-over shows that, like Frankenstein or Porgy and Bess, can be considered opera or musical, mostly depending on who’s putting it on.

To quote the master himself in his 2010 book “Finishing the Hat” (the sequel, “Look, I Made a Hat” was released last fall), the story is as follows: “England in 1849. Sweeney Todd, a barber unjustly convicted and sent to an Australian prison, escapes and returns to London, determined to avenge himself on Judge Turpin, the man who convicted him. He allies himself with his former landlady, Nellie Lovett, but his plans to kill the Judge go awry and in his frustration he sets out to avenge himself on the world.”  This is Stephen Sondheim at his darkest, at least before he wrote Assassins, but there is a fair bit of humour in the show, mostly due to the conniving Mrs. Lovett, who takes advantage of the situation to improve her ailing business making “The Worst Pies in London” by adding Sweeney’s victims into her baked goods, and also due to the pseudo-barber Pirelli with whom Todd has a very funny “shave-off.”

As for Vertigo’s production, from the moment you walk into the theatre and lay eyes on Narda McCarroll’s dark, stunningly complex, multi-layered set, you know you’re going to be watching a show that’s … well … dark, stunningly complex and multi-layered – and very creepy. The orchestra, ably led by Stephen Woodjetts, is positioned high up in the rafters at the rear of the stage, which is also a unique touch, and appropriate for a show like this where they play pretty much non-stop. Bellamy has opted to do this show closer in style to the intimate musical that was Sondheim’s original vision, rather than the big Broadway production created by Sondheim’s long-time director, Harold Prince, and I would say it worked well. I loved how the character actors stepped seamlessly into and out of the “Greek-style” chorus, when the time came to sing the next section of the “Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” which ran throughout the show.

Another strength of this show is in its actors – particularly the two main leads, Kevin Aichele as the tortured Sweeney Todd, and Elizabeth Stepkowski Tarhan (recently seen in Fascinating Ladies) as his comedic counterpoint, Mrs. Lovett. Just like everyone else in the audience, I loved their duet “A Little Priest, ” in which they describe the different people they plan to bake into pies. (Fortunately, “everybody goes down well with beer”). I also thought Elinor Holt did a fine job as the confused – or perhaps not so confused – beggar woman.

I felt that on the whole, however, the singing was disappointing. The smaller chorus failed to generate the volume and intensity demanded of the music, particularly in the opening, and I would say most of the leads just didn’t have the chops for the near-operatic score, with the notable exception of Allison Lynch (recently seen in Ash Rizin) as Sweeney Todd’s beautiful, flighty daughter, Joanna, and Reid Spencer as the evil Judge Turpin who imprisons her and then insists she marry him (and I thought it was supposed to be the other way around ;) ). Also, there were some issues with sound and enunciation, which made it difficult to make out Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics at times – not a problem for people like me who know the score well, but probably an issue for people who don’t.

All in all, if you haven’t seen Sweeney Todd before, and are intrigued by the story, I would still go, because it is one of Stephen Sondheim’s best works and Vertigo’s production is above average on many counts.

Sweeney Todd  – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street plays at Vertigo Mystery Theatre until June 3. Tickets range in price from $45 to $55.  For more information see:  Vertigo Theatre. If you are looking for someone to go with, the Calgary Musicals Meetup Group is going again later this month, so you might want to consider joining them. 

And just for fun, here are a couple of links for Sweeney Todd fans – mostly for younger people who have been introduced to the show through the 2007 Johnny Depp movie (this link is to the fabulous official website, which includes some musical clips). I still haven’t seen the movie, but it’s high on my list. I added my “I Love Sweeney Todd” story to the “experience project” website.–Like-Sweeney-Todd-(Girls)

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14 thoughts on “Review: Sweeney Todd – Sondheim’s Masterpiece Needs Better Chops (but worth a go)

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  2. Derek R on said:

    I didn’t see the Calgary Opera show but I did see the FRC one (which did include a full chorus) and can confirm that it was of a high standard. I enjoyed it just as much as the Vertigo show.

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