OGDEN — I am not a huge fan of Sweeney Todd, I’ll admit that right off. It’s too dissonant, too despairing, too dreadful to appeal much. I recognize the genius of Sondheim as a storyteller, composer, and lyricist, but Sweeney has never been a show I’d run to go see. But you should run to go see this one. Weber State University’s Theatre Department and director Andrew Barratt Lewis’ production is stunning on every level. Sets, lighting, costume design: all combined seamlessly to create an other-worldly, other-timely experience from the moment we stepped inside the Allred Theater on Weber State campus.
The director’s concept takes us to a rundown theater of the late 1800’s. The stage is filled with ancient lighting equipment, decaying ropes, crumbling backdrops, and broken props everywhere that had clearly seen a better life somewhere. The center section of the stage was built on a rake, and the ‘offstage’ areas were clearly visible. When the show began the actors emerged, creeping and crawling, from every crevice and cavity, both seen and unseen, dragging chairs, props, boxes, and ladders. They were as much a part of the scenery as the platforms and stairwells. Scenic designer Porter Lance created a functional, beautiful, and emotional setting for this group of actors to tell the story. Lance provided everything they would need to create their alternate universe. Each area of the stage was cleverly utilized to transform into whatever was needed: the bake shop, the tonsorial parlor above, Mrs. Lovett’s sitting room, the demonic basement/bakehouse, and worse. Every detail was exact. The ensemble were especially notable as they oozed with fluid grace in and out of scenes and songs, adding depth and a sinister undertone to the environment. Even when they weren’t ‘onstage’ they were never really ‘offstage’, as each cast member found a nook or hideaway to inhabit and watch the goings-on, never letting the audience forget that we are watching a performance, yet not distracting from the tragic tale.
The essence of a time gone by was also evident in the costume design. The rich layering of fabric and patterns were a feast for the eyes and communicated so much information about each character. The Victorian overtones and steampunk accents combined in a disjointed yet effective way. We are in London of the late 1800s, yet not in any ‘real world’ at the same time. Costume Designer Catherine Zublin uses pattern and texture brilliantly. Every single actor from leads to ensemble is distinct and fits into the whole. An especial favorite of mine was Beadle Bamford, whose black leather ensemble, buckles, and dark glasses melded perfectly with his sinuous posture to give viper vibes to the character. George Michael Edwards III was completely committed to his character choices and brought an often under-rated role to sinister and memorable life.
Another stellar element of this production was the lighting design by Marley Keith, which was as much a character as Sweeney himself. The dramatic colors, shadows, moving spotlights, and shifting focus were a perfect companion to the set and costume designs, and were just as choreographed as the ensemble. Striking and breathtaking, it added another layer of emotion to the story. The theatre program at Weber State has sky-rocketed in its production values and acting talent in recent years. This cast was as polished as any professional company I’ve seen anywhere in the world. The talent is stunning. Every role seemed to be perfectly cast. Music Director Kenneth Plain worked magic with these students. I never heard a wrong note or even the smallest error in this unbelievably complex and challenging score.
Taylor Garlick as Sweeney Todd was poetic tragedy personified. It is impossible to reconcile this young man with the stunning performance he gave. He left everything in his impressive acting arsenal on that stage. I am a new Garlick enthusiast and will keep a keen eye on his future performances. Madison Rigby as Mrs. Lovett was a highlight as well. Her onstage chemistry with Garlick was fantastic, and her vocal chops are immense. Her performance was perfection; her comedic timing was brilliant. Her likeability overrode all Lovett’s gruesome deeds. I really wanted her to make it out of the story and find a happy ending. So many other actors stood out too. Jacob Coates as Anthony had a youthful earnestness and beautiful singing voice. Emma Kate Leishman as the Beggar Woman effortlessly flipped from tragic beggar to raunchy streetwalker and back, never missing a beat. When her heartbreak is revealed, there was an audible gasp from most of the audience. And Dixon Trumbo as Tobias Ragg was chilling, sweet, disturbing, and adorable. He made me laugh, cringe, and cry in one hour. Brilliantly done.
The only minor drawback in an otherwise seamless performance was a bit of trouble with a couple of mics and an unfortunate incident with a wig and a hat rack which caused some lighthearted laughter.
Hats off to Andrew Barratt Lewis and his entire production team on turning out a beautifully tragic, gruesomely humorous rendition of a cult favorite. I have tremendous respect for his craft and ability. While I am still not a huge fan of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, (my husband described it as ‘a finger down the throat of true love’) I am a fan of Lewis’ work and Weber’s Theatre Department and will praise this production to anyone who asks. Well done.