For Sweeney Todd, revenge is a meal served piping hot—as in piping hot meat pies filled with the juicy flesh of his victims. Moo-ha-ha-ha.
It’s a delicious atrocity, no doubt about it, but the genius of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, playing now at the Western Stage, is the gorgeously plotted story which justifies this 19th century serial murderer’s recipe for cannibalism. It’s macabre allegory, a thrilling tale of true crime and a stirring indictment of society all carved with a conductor’s baton into a bloody shank of meat.
Sweeney Todd opens with Benjamin Barker returning to gothic London after 15 years of exile in Australia. Barker, once a barber of some renown, was deported to the prison continent by the vile Judge Turpin who gang raped his wife and stole away his baby daughter. Barker changes his name to Sweeney Todd, returns to his old neighborhood on Fleet Street, and picks up his beloved razors once again. “You’ll soon drip precious rubies,” he sings to them lovingly.
In the process of luring Judge Turpin to his barbershop, Sweeney Todd finds it necessary to slit the throats of some local interlopers with long memories and dispose of their bodies with the help of Mrs. Lovett, who owns a meat pie restaurant downstairs. Fresh meat in the early 1800’s is scarce and, before long, the meat pie shop is doing a booming business.
As Sweeney Todd slashes and sings its way to an inevitably gruesome and tragic conclusion, it becomes clear why Sondheim is referred to as “the Unofficial Poet Laureate of Broadway.” Sweeney Todd may not have any truly classic songs—there’s no “Maria” from Sondheim’s West Side Story, for instance. But as a whole, it is such a well-crafted and original piece of musical theater that it nearly redefines the genre, or at least creates a new sub-genre: the musical thriller.
At the age of ten, Sondheim had the profound fortune to move next door to Oscar Hammerstein (Oklahoma, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I) in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Hammerstein not only became a surrogate father to the young Sondheim, but also taught him what made a great musical—constructing songs in the manner of plays, with a beginning, middle and end.
With such hits as West Side Story, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum and Follies, Sondheim worked in the classic American musical form that Hammerstein had perfected—stories constructed around easily definable units of song.
Sweeney Todd, however, is a departure from this model. It has more in common with the light operas of Gilbert and Sullivan than the American musicals of Oscar and Hammerstein. Consequently, it is not an easy musical to produce. First and foremost it takes an exceptional cast of voices, which director Jon Patrick Selover and musical director Don Dally manages to assemble in spades.
Reg Huston brings opera-caliber pipes, fine acting, and a wonderfully-nuanced humor to the role of Sweeney Todd. Partnered with the pitch-perfect performance of Susanne Burns as Mrs. Lovett, they carry the bulk of the show like two capable ghouls hauling carcasses from a graveyard.
Similarly, the romantic sub-plot is well wrought by Ronald M. Livingston as the sincere young seaman Anthony and Sarah Elise Murai as Sweeney Todd’s pretty, bird-like little daughter, Johanna.
But the standout performances come from Mike Baker and Pat Horsley. Granted, they are blessed with the two most captivating characters. Baker plays Tobias, a half-wit tout who “lucks” into a job as Mrs. Lovett’s waiter and Horsley portrays the Beggar Woman, a raving mad street person who brandishes her genitals for alms while keeping a wild eye on the suspicious barber/meat pie shop. Both are unforgettable. Baker’s unique talent is such that I would not be the least bit surprised to see him develop into an instantly recognizable Hollywood character actor.
Yet there isn’t a weak voice or performance in the cast. Chris Graham is excellent as the egomaniacal and dissipated Judge Turpin and Michael R.J. Campbell is perfect as his beaming toadie/thug Beadle Bramford. As a whole, the ensemble’s performance is flawlessly directed and executed. They meld in and out of the shadowy blue/black set of rolling staircases and platforms, suspended catwalks, hell gates, and cage box lighting gels like ghosts.
But at the heart of this tremendous musical is Wheeler’s great story and Sondheim’s equally inspired lyrics. “And what if none of their souls were saved?” the ensemble sings of Sweeney Todd’s victims. “They went to their Maker impeccably shaved by Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”
Sweeney Todd plays at 8pm Fri and Sat and at 2pm on Sun, through Oct. 30, at the Western Stage, 156 Homestead Ave., Salinas. $25/adults; $16/seniors; juniors and military. 755-6816 or www.westernstage.com.