If you’re a musical theater person (and some folks are not: “WHY are these people SINGING about CANNIBALISM?!?!?) then you have a list of “My Favorite Shows I’m Very Protective Of” meaning you set high standards for any production you see.
Stephen Sondheim’s SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET is very high on my list of “Don’t You Dare Muck This Up” shows. One, it’s Stephen Sondheim, and frankly, half my list consists of Sondheim shows. Secondly, not only is it a Sondheim musical but it’s pretty much a PERFECT Sondheim musical…it has both a beautiful score and a clever book not to mention captivating, larger than life characters. It’s a bloody revenge story full of wrongs being righted but in all the wrong ways. But, it also manages to be cheeky fun, too.
(For those of you who need a synopsis…well, if you don’t know the plot to Sweeney Todd, you’re not a real musical theater fan. Go to Wikipedia…that’s what it’s there for. )
It’s funny, scary, sad, BLOODY, and it’s one of those old fashioned musicals where you leave the theater actually humming one of its many, many beautifully perfect songs…something you seldom get to do with any musical written in the last 10 years or so which mostly consist of whining recitatives set to boring tunes.
So, going into last night’s opening of Sweeney Todd at The 5th Avenue Theatre I had very high hopes not to mention high expectations; they had a glorious piece of material to work with….would they honor that material with a beautiful production?
And, the answer is: sometimes and sorta. Which was not really the outcome I was hoping for.
Let’s start with the POSITIVE. This is a glorious SOUNDING show. Vocally, the cast is all quite strong but equally important, the 19 piece orchestra in the pit under the musical directorship of Matt Perri is superb. Too frequently we tend to forget about those unseen players in musical theater, the people in the pit playing the music and it’s too bad, especially in the case of the 5th Avenue, where you can pretty much always rely on their being a full orchestra full of very talented musicians doing justice to all the great (and improving the not so great) scores they perform. And, in a world where penny pinching producing companies like to cut corners by slashing the number of musicians in the pit, we should be very thankful the 5th Avenue still likes to pay for a robust sound. (ADDED: the ensemble/chorus is also amazing in this show…strong, powerful voices in this chorus and they do a terrific job. A major plus in this production!)
Secondly, this show looks pretty good, too. The scenic design is fine; it’s your typical Sweeney with the unit set of Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop/Sweeney’s barber shop and the scary basement bakehouse set center stage as a big rotating cube and surrounded by levels of scaffolds and stairs…it’s all designed like a glorious macabre cathedral by scenic designer Lex Marcos. The lighting by Robert J. Aguilar overly relies on bold bursts of color but it’s effective given the themes of the melodramatic material. This brazen use of color in the lighting allows director Jay Woods the opportunity to create some very pretty pictures with the actors, especially the Chorus, framing them in interesting patterns against the various violent splashes of strong color.
And, there’s at least one performance to crow to the heavens about…Anne Allgood is superbly good as our leading lady, the notoriously worst pie baker in London, Mrs. Lovett. It’s not really a surprise that Anne Allgood is terrific in this role…anyone who’s a Seattle theater person who has seen one of her many excellent performances on area stages over the years know that Ms Allgood is not only very talented but also very well suited for this role; it’s very much in her roundhouse. So, it’s not a surprise that she’s good but it IS a testament to her talents that she can take a role that is very much associated as one of Angela Lansbury’s crowning roles which she originated on Broadway in 1979, but still manage to make it her own. It’s easy to fall back on Lansbury’s take on the part, with queer tics and vocal mannerisms; Lansbury’s Lovett is nutty and deranged but Allgood manages to convey similar traits but with her own original spin on the character. Her Lovett is more down to earth, a lot more “real” than Lansbury’s take which makes it all the more chilling….real monsters are far scarier than cartoony ones. Anne Allgood is one of the main reasons why you should buy a ticket to see this production.
There’s other performances to like as well; the company is mostly solid. Nik Hagen was quite lovely as Tobias the youthful assistant, providing equal parts youthful zest and pathos. He did have some problems with projection during his final moments in the show; mad scenes that require mumbling do pose a problem for actors when you need to be able to mumble with enough force so that everyone can actually understand and hear what you’re mumbling about in a vast cavern like the 5th Avenue. So…hint, hint.
There’s also fine turns from Jason Weitkamp as the villainous but music loving Beadle and Jesus Garcia as the duplicitious conman Pirelli. Both are giving big performances but manage to avoid going over the top…barely. And, Deon’te Goodman and Leslie Jackson made for an appealing “love couple” as noble seaman Anthony and the object of his affections, Johanna. The roles require attractive actors who can hit all the right notes and both young actors are lovely.
(Added note of negativity: The accents are all over the place in this show. If you’re an accent purist…you ain’t gonna be happy here…)
And, then there’s our Sweeney. He’s played by Yusef Seevers, an actor new to Seattle, and he has a fine voice. He does a nice job. And, that’s the problem…he’s a bit too nice. Sweeney is a dark, bitter, menacing role and Mr. Seevers wasn’t bringing enough of any of those things. To be honest, in the opening scenes of the show where he enters with Anthony, the youthfully naive sailor that Sweeney had met on his voyage back to London, it was hard to tell which actor was which; both actors seemed of a similar age (Anthony is supposed to be young and Sweeney should easily read as a rough 45 to 50) and temperament. The show isn’t derailed because this Sweeney isn’t as bitter as I want him to be but it does alter the chemistry of the show…the lack of blood thirst. It’s a bit of a problem when the Sweeney seems more like an Anthony.
Which leads to our discussion about some of the things about this production that didn’t work. Like the lack of not only blood thirstiness but the actual lack of BLOOD in this Sweeney…despite all the onstage throat slashings and stabbings, there’s not a drop of stage blood to be found at any time. Which, to me, is an odd choice to make in a production about actual bloody murders…it’s the whole point of the show! Was it a question of “well, it’s messy!” or “we don’t want to upset the audience!” Because both those reasons are stupid. It’s a show about bloody murders…SHOW THE BLOODY MURDERS!
There’s also no shaving cream. In a show about a barber. They mime it all. I guess, it’s another question of “too messy”? I mean, theaters for decades have been producing this show, about barbers who kill people, with both shaving cream and stage blood but we can’t be bothered in 2023 because it means the costume department will have more laundry to do?
Those are both probably, ultimately, directorial choices so that leads us to discuss the direction of this production of Sweeney Todd….and, some of the other queer choices made by Jay Woods. Like, why did she feel the need to add an onstage sex scene for Anthony and Johanna? And, amp up the sexual frustration of Mrs. Lovett by having her remove her skirt in a key scene with Sweeney? Other than an opportunity to be “different” and shocking, why add stuff that doesn’t really need to be added? The Anthony/Johanna sex scene was just distracting and off putting and the Lovett bit just left poor Anne Allgood struggling with what to do with her damn discarded skirt at the end of the scene.
Or, why does Johanna sing a song about some lovely birds she has seen, when the birds are out of her sight? Why is that entire scene so awkwardly staged? Why is the performance of the actor playing Judge Turpin so extreme and over the top? It’s like he’s channeling a combination of Scar from The Lion King and a villain from an episode of Scooby Doo… I kept waiting for Anthony to run over to Turpin and snatch the mask off his head. There’s also a lot of problems with the big “Barber Contest Scene” between the conman Pirelli and Sweeney…it’s a tough scene to stage; there’s a lot going on and it’s all happening very rapidly but again, strange choices made like having Sweeney shave a member of the ensemble who doesn’t have any facial hair to start with.
There’s also some very awkward transitions in between scenes with the results that the actors sometimes looked lost on stage while the audience felt lost and unsure how to react…there were moments when a smattering of applause broke out because the audience didn’t understand if a particular scene or song was over or not. Transitions are a tough thing in musicals (I’ve seen other shows at the 5th Avenue staged by far more experienced directors than Ms Woods that also struggled with that; the 5th Avenue’s very recent production of Into the Woods, helmed by artistic director Bill Berry had several such clunky moments and he’s been directing for decades!)
I was also confused/annoyed by the choices made with the costume designs (by Danielle Nieves) for this production. Where are we? The material of the piece is Victorian London, though the original story the musical is based on was set in the late 18th century. The costume design is part Victorian, part Steam Punk, part Georgian, and part hippie Renaissance Faire with just a dash of “let’s copy The Hunger Games!” and a splash of “Solid Gold Dancers” during a couple key moments. And, maybe even a teaspoon of influence from Kubrick’s film Eyes Wide Shut. Some of the costumes were interesting; others were distracting and some just stupid (Judge Turpin’s lizardly coat). I’m a fan of creative costuming but it has to have some logic…this just seems like a mess and an attempt to get attention. Like adding sex scenes where they don’t exist. It’s TikTok theater making…it doesn’t make sense but it’s flashy and fun and sure to get us likes and views!!! The kids will LOVE IT! And, if in doubt, show some skin!
On the plus side, and as I stated up above, Ms Woods did have some strong moments of staging and the placing of actors during the show. And, I very much liked how a dream/flashback sequence was done and the scene in the madhouse towards the end of the musical. She’s only directed a couple of these big musicals but I think Jay Woods has talent and a lot of potential…there’s just a question of making directorial choices that don’t benefit the material, the actors, the designers, and the audience.
So, yes, it’s a mixed bag for me. There are things I like and things I don’t but…it’s all subjective. Because it’s Sweeney Todd, a mostly perfect musical with a gorgeous score, and it has a terrific leading lady and a great orchestra pit, I can still recommend you check out this production. It’s still much better than their mediocre recent production of Into the Woods. The general audience will have a fine time and the pickier members of the hoi polloi will either revel in the good/ignore the bad or they’ll stay away. The lack of blood in this production is a downer but it’s not enough of a reason to entirely dismiss the entire show.
It’s a bloody shame but we’ve had worse pies than this.