WEST VALLEY CITY — When picking a show to see or produce around Halloween, you cannot go wrong with Sondheim’s amazing and horrific tale of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. First produced in 1979, the story follows a man who leaves London in shame and exile and also having lost everything that he loved. The deeper themes of trauma and loss and communication are so timeless that they still feel new and fresh 42 years later. The math is easy, because I was born in 1979.
The production by West Valley Arts, stars the very talented J. Michael Bailey as the title character and Casey Matern as the formidable Mrs. Lovett. The pair were entrancing in this surprisingly well done rendition of Sweeney Todd. The two were especially entrancing in the darkly hilarious act one closing song, “Little Priest,” in which the comedic timing, vocalizations, and clear understanding of the importance of the balance of comedy and drama within that number made the performance shine.
The technical elements of the show, from the direction by John Sweeney, to the music direction by Anne Puzey, to the lighting design by Michael Grey, they all deserve praise. Sweeney Todd is one of the most complicated musical compositions of Sondheim, and being able to pull off the vocals is something that I have seen professional productions struggle with. Puzey did such a fantastic job with the full ensemble of this cast. It is something to witness and behold, to have the chords of a number represent both beauty and horror, and Puzey was able to do that in many of the important areas of the show, from each time the title refrain came on, to the song, “City on Fire,” when much of the terror really comes to light. Adding to all of these technical elements was the lighting, with the red lights coming from under the stage where the ovens laid, to the changes to soft lighting whenever Johanna, played by Rachel Bigler, and Anthony Hope, played by Kaden Caldwell, have the more innocent and hopeful interactions of the show. The subtle changes from dark lighting to soft lighting throughout the show really added to the ambiance in a way that was not jarring but flowing and conducive to the story.
The endearing character of Tobias, played here by Thomas Brandley, was even more tender than I have seen in other productions of this caliber. Brandley embodied both the innocence of Tobias and the strange juxtaposition of wisdom that he has from having been mistreated by Adolfo Pirelli, played here magnificently by Dan Radford. Brandley also had fantastic mannerisms and reactions, both responding quickly and anxiously to Radfords character and with surprised excitement to even the tiniest bit of kindness from Matern’s character. Building his character in this manner made his iconic number, “Nothing’s Gonna Harm You,” all the more pivotal to the plot and much more beautifully painful to watch when one understands the meaning and the future. The other tragic innocent of the show, the Beggar woman, played by Diana Graham, played her role with the haunting beauty that it deserves.
The antagonists, Judge Turpin played by Josh Egbert and Beadle Bamford played by Eric Armstrong, were delightful in their self righteous airs. There is a moment where Armstrong as Beadle Bamford harms an innocent bird and, because of the design of the West Valley Arts Center, I was in view of an audience member who must not have been very familiar with the storyline. I watched her horror in that well-played moment amplified over and over as the players hit so many moments with ease that I really thought I could have easily been at an equity production.
There were a few things that I felt were handled well with the limited budgets seen in community theatres, such as the choice of how to handle each death, but it made me wonder what magic director Sweeney (have you been waiting all your life to do this show just because of your name?) could do with professional money.
Sweeney Todd is a show that deserves more traction than it often gets in this area. Yes, the subject matter is grim and West Valley Arts is wisely putting a caution on their site to warn audiences that it is better for 16 and above. Still, the lessons on revenge, communication, and love and loss are timeless and so important it is almost like Sondheim wrote this yesterday, not the year I was born.