Clothes make the killer

Sweeney Todd’ in Wilmington

4 minute read
Baynes, Martin: Even the audience isn't safe. (Phengo Photography.)
Baynes, Martin: Even the audience isn't safe. (Phengo Photography.)
Design appears to have been a chief concern for director Michael Gray in his idiosyncratic Sweeney Todd. The costumes (by Kerry Kristine McElrone) took center stage in the City Theater Company's engaging reinvention of Stephen Sondheim's gruesome and gorgeous cannibal musical. McElrone's fashion-savvy punk-chic creations set this production in a familiar, poverty-stricken (if sometimes flashy) inner city— a London that might easily be mistaken for Philadelphia.

The costumes tell us worlds about the characters: Simple Tobias's tie is a mess, the thin end dangling six inches below the thick, and the wretched waif Johanna's white dress and fuzzy white sweater barely manage to conceal her hideously slashed wrists. The vile Judge Turpin, already formidably built, is swimming in his huge purple-on-purple striped suit; and meanwhile the naÓ¯ve sailor/paramour Anthony wears a pea coat over his patriotic union jack shirt.

The sharpest costuming contrast on stage sets the gray-on-black, hoodie-garbed ex-con Sweeney, complete with neck tattoo and cheek piercing, against a Mrs. Lovett in black ankle-boots, gold anklets, pink stockings, pink and green floral skirt, and tight black low-cut blouse, with beads, stars and strings in her flicked-up dreads, all topped off and tied together by a bright pink feather. A neck-up shot of each character would be enough to get a feel for them.

The eye makeup (makeup and hair by Valerie Regan) alone is telling: Sweeney's and Johanna's heavy black shading brands them as tormented; Pirelli's bright blue rectangles of color enhance his fashionista/fraud persona; and the lack of shading on the Beadle and the Judge set them above the infirmities of the poor.

Infiltrating the audience

The set (by Wayne Romanowski) and choreography (Dawn Morningstar) give Gray's actors particular power over their captive audience. The music of Sweeney Todd is already hypnotizing, and in this production actors play behind, in front of, among and on either side of the small audience, sometimes creeping up out of nowhere. This wise use of space allows them greater access to viewers to threaten, beg, converse, shake hands, berate etc., but I found myself seduced into the play more by the frequent need to turn in my seat than by these traditional tricks.

During the good portion of the play in which interesting action occurs all around, if the creaking of the plank beside me didn't alert my sense of danger, I could easily be surprised by the powerful voice of an actor over my shoulder, or even directly in my face.

In the more intimate scenes, the action is fixed on the stage, which is splattered with chaotic Jackson Pollock slashes that keep the eye from becoming complacent.

Make-out session

Design aside, this Sweeney provides some excellent performances. Brendan Sheehan is extremely likable as the grimly determined Anthony, and Lauren Cupples as Johanna is tragic but again relatable: not a chaste maid from 19th-Century London but a haunted and sexually-explorative modern girl, who ranges from limp complacence within the Judge's lecherous embrace, to drawing Anthony to the floor in "Kiss Me" for a bit of a make-out session. It doesn't hurt that the ingénues have two of the company's best voices.

Other notable performances included Brian Couch as the weasel-like Beadle, dancing with and around his Judge in "Ladies in their Sensibilities" and bringing the natural rhythm of these lines to the surface, and Dale Martin, Jr. as Sweeney, stalking his audience with the very spirit of vengeance. And then there is TS Baynes's perhaps crazy but excruciatingly enchanting re-characterization of Mrs. Lovett, who never looks over the heads of the audience but openly shares her jibes, seductions, teases, flirts and purrs with us.

I've seen this play in five other incarnations, and the ingenuity of Gray's team offered me all the excitement of my first viewing. Most companies present Sweeney as a witty, macabre period piece; this fresh perspective reminds us that it is also an exploration of the extreme depths of human cruelty and suffering.♦

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What, When, Where

Sweeney Todd. Book by Hugh Wheeler; music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; directed by Michael Gray. City Theater Company production through December 19, 2009 at Opera Delaware Studios, 4 S. Poplar St., Wilmington, Del. (302) 220-8285 or

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