SWEENEY TODD: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: TheatreLab, The Basement, 300 E. Broad St, RVA 23219
Performances: February 14 – March 14, 2019
Ticket Prices: $35 general admission; discounts available for students, seniors, industry
Info: (804) 506-3533 or theatrelabrva.org
TheatreLAB’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a large-scale musical undertaking by a relatively small theater company. And they nailed it!
Director Deejay Gray has outdone himself. The cast, the tone, the pacing, the minimalist industrial set – also designed by Gray – and the intimate setting all work together to create a juicy, gory, bone-chilling evening of theater. I noticed that the program cover says, “TheatreLAB is proud to present Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
The ensemble is led by Alexander Sapp as the vengeful barber and Bianca Bryan as Mrs. Lovett, his landlord and owner of the pie shop that finds success only after adding a special secret ingredient to her meat pies. Both are deliciously intense and over the top. Sapp is unrelentingly manic in his quest for vengeance, after having been wrongfully deported to Australia so a corrupt local judge, Turpin, could take advantage of his beautiful young wife. Bryan is positively chilling in her remorseless determination to win the barber’s affections and advance her failing pie business – which she herself describes in song as, “The Worst Pies in Town.”
But the strength of this production does not rest solely on the shoulders of the two leads. William Anderson, as the corrupt Judge Turpin appears in his first scene with his eyes wildly bugged out, and the next time we see him he is ripping pages from his bible and flagellating himself as he tries to talk himself out of his lustful attraction to his beautiful young ward, Johanna – who is actually the daughter of Sweeney Todd, and sees in the pompous Turpin only a father figure. Mallory Keene plays Johanna with a sweet innocence – except when demanding kisses from her true love, Anthony Hope, or grabbing a pistol to shoot her jailer!
Kelsey Cordrey is an interesting sidekick as Beadle Bamford, the Judge’s lackey. Wordlessly, Cordrey conveys contempt for the Judge, and perhaps even envy and a desire to have Johanna for himself. Then there’s Audra Honaker who does double duty as the mysterious beggar woman and Pirelli, a rival barber. Interestingly, neither of Honaker’s characters are who they first appear to be, but it is the role of Pirelli that infuses some much needed hilarity into this horror story of a musical.
Matt Shofner charms as the loyal young apprentice, Tobias (Toby) Ragg. Freed from bondage to the flamboyant and fake Pirelli after Pirelli has a visit with Todd, Toby becomes attached to Mrs. Lovett an performs a touching duet in which he promises that nothing can harm her as long as he’s around. Little does he know. . .
The cast also includes Matt Polson as Anthony Hope, the young sailor who saves the shipwrecked Sweeney Todd and befriends him – pretty much against his will, and two musicians who remain onstage and occasionally get swept up in the action. The violinist is Marissa Resmini, and John-Stuart Fauquet on piano is also the production’s musical director. Michael Jarett designed the lighting, and there are plenty of special effects to cover the bloody throat slitting, indicate the bakeshop ovens are working, or create projections on the rear wall. Gray has covered the rear and side walls in industrial strength plastic, making me wonder, on entering, if perhaps the audience might need bibs, like the ones you get in seafood restaurants, to keep from getting splattered with blood. The audience has to walk through the set to get to their seats – and everyone is encouraged to use the facilities before the first act or wait until intermission. With everyone glued to their seats – partially in fear – I don’t think anyone thought of going to the bathroom during the first act.
Needless to say, with its themes of sexual assault, insanity, murder, corruption, imprisonment, incest, and more, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a part of the 2019 Acts of Faith Festival. And several performances are already sold out, so don’t wait, reserve your tickets now – and if you can, sit in the first row.
Oh, and did I mention that the singing is powerful (I could understand most of the lyrics) and the music sounds like a small orchestra, and not just two musicians? Well, it is (lack of clarity may have been due to musical phrasing, I’m not sure) and it does!
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photo Credits: Tom Topinka