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Media Theatre’s current production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, brings a swirling, mesmerizing mix of music, choreography, and character clashes. It is Sondheim’s most developed work, operatic in scope.
Sweeney Todd was a stock character in Victorian penny dreadfuls. But Christopher Bond’s 1973 play gave the boogeyman a sympathetic backstory. Thanks to Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 musical version (book by Hugh Wheeler), Sweeney Todd is now almost as well-known as Frankenstein.
Set or obsession
Sondheim saw Sweeney as a study in obsession, but Broadway producer Hal Prince turned the musical into a metaphorical indictment of the Industrial Revolution. In his Tony Award-winning production, Prince famously reassembled a 19th-century iron foundry on stage. The set-versus-obsession controversy still lingers.
Mathew Miller’s set at Media does not overpower, but his smoky stage is haunting. A long balustrade connects two flanking columns of wooden stairs. This spidery structure frames changing background videos of 19th-century London street life, and Steven Spera’s light design adds to the spooky aura. The barbershop and meat-pie shop are only small parts of this larger scene.
Other show elements argue against Sondheim’s narrow viewpoint. Sweeney is often a victim of circumstance. And Sondheim’s own songs — “No Place Like London” and “City On Fire” — highlight the importance of time and place.
Casting, comparisons, and contrasts
Under director Jesse Cline, character clashes keep the show in motion. Broadway veterans Douglas Ladnier and Jenny Lee Stern shine in the starring roles. Ladnier’s Sweeney Todd is angry, regal, and reserved, while Stern’s Mrs. Lovett is a ditzy, garrulous Cockney. Their contrasting personas make for one of the oddest couplings in theater.
Sondheim uses song brilliantly to flesh out how they partner in madness. Sweeney bonds with a winking Mrs. Lovett, who sings “A Little Priest,” the comical paean to her new meat-pie ingredients.
But Sweeney compares well to his nemesis, Judge Turpin (Jason Switzer). They’re both tall, virile men with deep, sonorous voices. They, in turn, contrast with another pair of young and innocent guys, Anthony Hope (Alex G. Kunz) and Tobias (Christian Ryan), both pure tenors.
Jennie Eisenhower (Beggar Woman), Molly Sorensen (Joanna), Nicholas Saverine (Beadle), JP Dunphy (Pirelli), and Roger Ricker (Jonas Fogg) complete the cast.
The Frankenstein conundrum
What are we supposed to make of the star character? Thanks to Bond’s play, we know Judge Turpin’s cruelty ignited Sweeney’s rage. But how does Sweeney’s need for vengeance justify the slaughter of innocents? We have similar mixed feelings towards Frankenstein’s monster. (An adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is currently running at Quintessence Theatre.)
Sondheim sees Sweeney as Everyman, arguing there is a little bit of Sweeney Todd in all of us. Sure, we all brood over injustices suffered, but have Sondheim or any of his friends baked up a fresh batch of human meat pies? Sweeney is remorseless and unfeeling as he kills the blameless.
He is a grotesque in the largest sweep of the musical. In one of the most rousing finales in all theater, released inmates of Bedlam stream through the London stage singing “City on Fire.” Functioning as a Greek chorus, the ensemble has little to say about Sweeney. He is always there, ready to sing “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.” But next to an entire city on fire, he is just one tortured player in a writhing crowd.
What, When, Where
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler, Jesse Cline directed. Through October 28, 2018, at the Media Theatre, 104 E. State Street, Media, Pennsylvania. (610) 891-0100 or mediatheatre.org.
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