The first thing to be said about “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” which recently opened at the Brookfield Theatre for the Arts, is that it is, well, long. From curtain to curtain, with an intermission, the entire experience lasted well over three hours. Yes, the musical itself, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler, is, in itself, lengthy, but the pacing of this production, directed by Craig David Rosen, seems often to trudge more that trot. That being said, there are enough high points to make the evening at BTA worthwhile.
Most theatergoers are probably familiar with the plot. You have Sweeney (a.k.a. Benjamin Barker), a barber who was unjustly sentenced to exile in Australia by Judge Turpin, who lusted after Sweeney’s wife. Sweeney returns to London seeking revenge. He meets Mrs. Lovett, a woman who runs a pie shop that sells “The Worst Pies in London,” and sets up shop on the second floor of her establishment. Deranged by his travails, Sweeney begins slitting the throats of his customers, providing Mrs. Lovett with meat for her pies (she had previously been using pussy cats). There’s a sub-plot, for Sweeney has a daughter, Johanna, who became the judge’s ward. The judge now wishes to wed her, but she is in love with a young sailor, Anthony Hope, who just happened to save Sweeney’s life while they were at sea (the original story, “A String of Pearls,” was a highly successful penny dreadful publication in the late 1800s, so you just have to accept such contrivances). After much bloodletting, Sweeney finally gets his revenge, but it is bittersweet.
So, what’s the draw of this production about murder and cannibalism? Well, first of all there’s Marilyn Olsen as the pragmatic pie-shop owner, Mrs. Lovett. She’s just about perfect in the role, no more so than in her character’s signature song, the perversely witty “A Little Priest” that ends the first act and details the possible ingredients she might use in her pies. As the source of these ingredients, Edmound Fitzpatrick as Sweeney is imposing and sufficiently obsessed. He and Olsen work quite well together as the deadly duo. Then there’s Dominick Ventrella as Toby, initially the front man for con artist Adolfo Pirelli (Rob Pawlikowski) but later a waiter at Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop. He’s dead-on with “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixer” and quite moving as he pledges to Mrs. Lovett that nothing will harm her in “Not While I’m Around,” even if director Rosen has Ventrella portray Toby as a spastic than just a simple-minded lad.
Rosen was sitting in the audience the night I saw the performance, so he must have observed, or heard, that Samantha LaMendola as Johanna often simply can’t he heard distinctly. Even in her solo, “Green Finch and Linnet Bird,” the sequestered five-piece orchestra seems to mask the lyrics. If she is miked (it wasn’t evident) then the sound needs to be amped-up; if she is not (and given the size of the theater there’s really no need for audio enhancement), then a director’s note about projecting one’s voice might be in order. He might also ask Elizabeth Varda, in charge of costumes, to find Beadle Bamford (Marty Posner) a different hairpiece – it looks like he’s wearing a lacquered swim cap.
“Sweeney” is set in a less than salubrious part of London circa 1890, and so its denizens are a dubious lot. It falls to the ensemble – all 12 of them – to convey this atmosphere, which they do, often filling the aisles as they perform the Greek chorus function, commenting mainly on Sweeney’s actions in the often reprised “Ballad of Sweeney Todd.”
All in all, this is a quite engaging production of the Sondheim classic, especially given that Olsen’s performance is worth the price of a ticket. As summer fare? Well, I guess that’s a matter of taste…and mood…for “Sweeney” is dark and somber and, well, possibly depressing, for just about no one gets out alive. To my mind, it’s an autumn show, appropriate for when the leaves are falling, the daylight is dwindling and ghosts and goblins just might be seen roaming the streets.
“Sweeney Todd” runs through July 28. For tickets or more information go to www.brookfieldtheatre.org