SALT LAKE CITY — I had pretty high expectations for The Grand’s staging of Sweeney Todd. Between my adoration of Grand Theatre’s previous productions and my exposure to this play from the parody episode in The Office (where Andy gets cast as Anthony), I was ready for a fabulous night of musical theatre.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler and from an adaptation by Christopher Bond) opens up with the ensemble — who appear throughout the play as various townspeople — dressed in tattered clothes singing the titular song. As each actor steps forward to sing their portion, they each get their own spotlight. This marks the beginning of lighting designer Seth Miller‘s continuous use of light throughout the performance. As the ensemble begins to dance around the stage, the lights shift into red, and begin to mix with red and white lights, flashing. Then, the curtains rise to reveal the largely immobile metal stage that looks like the remnants of a factory. The set (designed by Halee Rasmussen) has one portion that transforms to show more intimate locations: such as when the pie shop owned by Mrs. Lovett (played by Tamara Howell), where Tobias (played by Heidi Farber) assists her, or the street where Anthony (played by Brock Dalgleish) discovers that Johanna (played by Samantha Paredes) is locked away in the asylum.
The production makes use of various lights to represent each character, like the beggar woman whose background is always green. Most notably, when Sweeney Todd (played by Dallyn Vail Bayles) is ready to kill, the backdrop is lit with a deep red. There is also the excellent, and equally persistent use of shadows and silhouettes; when Judge Turpin (played by Patrick Kintz) first appears, he is shrouded in darkness, and when Lucy has gone to the masked ball where all the dancers are in long black robes, and the low lighting gives it an air of foreboding. Miller also succeeds admirably in his abundance use of different lighting techniques to highlight characters and their mental/emotional states.
Sweeney Todd is works best when it relies on the strengths of live theatre. Director Mark Fossen creates memorable theatrical moments, such as when Anthony is singing about Johanna, and they meet in a moment reminiscent of the infamous balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet. The cast’s comedic timing is superb, (especially Howell as Mrs. Lovett, who is a joy to watch and the funniest character in the show), and the actors smartly layer their performances on top of each other, such as during “Kiss Me” and “Ladies in Their Sensitivities,” when Anthony and Johanna sing to each other while, on another portion of the stage, the Judge and Beadle Bamford (played by Trevor Blair) perform their scene at the same time.
Fossen and his cast are excellent at telling this straightforward story. In this production, Mrs. Lovett and Todd feed off each other, and as they are swept up by the machinations of Todd’s madness, it seems like neither can stop themselves. There are also some poignant moments that feel like opportunities for actors to shine, such as when Todd is very casual in his shave-off against Pirelli (played by Christian Johnston), slowly putting the shaving cream on his customer’s face and diligently sharpening his tools. And Howell, whose portrays Mrs. Lovett as more interested in the future than the past — and actually comes up with the ideas, information and means to help Todd — comes off as a most more dynamic and interesting character. Still, there is something compelling about the way that Bayles has his character gleefully murdering strangers.
The true standout in this production is the music! While Sweeney Todd is not a jukebox musical, it was difficult not to sing along to some personal favorites, including “Poor Thing” and “Barber and His Wife.” The actors sing all their songs in their dialects, which make the evening extra fun. There are no weak numbers in this performance, and each song helps uncover, explore, or explain the characters and the plot.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a gripping tale of a descend into madness. The costuming, the dialects, and the set all transport the audience to 19th century London. With memorable and fantastic music and strong performances, it is very easy to enjoy the spectacle of Sweeney Todd.