Stephen Sondheim’s musical masterpiece gets a deliciously dark, spine-tingling retelling at Fremont Centre Theatre in a new production that is beautifully spare and positively sinister. Once a year, the local youth theatre company, Young Stars Theatre, puts on a traditional show as a fundraiser for its youth program and this year they’ve gone all in on something decidedly ominous in a show that proves to be a timely tale of the savagery that lies beneath the tension between the haves and the have nots of the world.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street tells the tale of the barber, Benjamin Barker, who returns to London after years of wrongful imprisonment in Australia and is hell-bent on seeking revenge for the killing of his wife and abduction of his infant daughter by those in power. The perpetrator of this crime is the slimy Judge Turpin who, unbeknownst to Todd, has taken the child, Johanna, as his ward and kept her hidden away all these years. Upon returning to his former barbershop, he meets up with the proprietor Mrs. Lovett who now runs the bakery below and turns out the “worst pies in London”. She recognizes him from the old days and gives him back his blades that she kept perhaps as a token of a man she clearly desires. Together they concoct an intricate scheme to bring down Judge Turpin, and in doing so, lose all sense of a moral compass as innocent bystanders become collateral damage on the road to revenge.
Mirai Booth-Ong’s direction is a revelation. The choice to scale the show down to its core elements pays off in ways big and small. The action takes place in three levels of a black box with dark shades of London in the background. In a clever use of a scrim and the back part of the stage, we clearly see Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop, Sweeney’s barbershop upstairs and the bakery and ovens down below. Booth-Ong’s pared down vision allows us an intimacy with the actors and the music wherein the imagination of the audience members merge with the story being told. The choreography is minimal and precise so it feels truly like an extension of character as opposed to dance. The direction is taut, keeping a relentless pace as the story descends into mayhem and madness.
Audiences will remember Jack and Gloria Bennett’s special chemistry from their funny and poignant performances in “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” in 2016 and it serves them beautifully once again as Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd.
Mrs. Lovett is a perfect role for Gloria Bennett. She brings her substantial vocal abilities to the role along with comedy chops, hysterical expressions and flirtatious longing to spare. Bennett and Bennett play beautifully off one another, never more so than in the raucous and joyful number “A Little Priest” as the two gleefully describe the assortments of pies they will serve made from the various types of “ingredients” they will use.
Jack Bennett is a forceful Sweeney, balancing the dark, menacing and vengeful side with the wistful sadness of a man who has lost everything. His rage is thunderous, his glee is joyful with a side of sinister, and his pain is palpable.
It’s refreshing to see so much talent in the supporting roles as well as the crackerjack ensemble. Everyone does a bang up job with what is considered one of the most difficult and beautiful of musical scores. The singing is crisp, clear and soaring thanks to the exquisite music direction of Daniel Koh.
Eric Eberle and Serenity Robb are irresistible as the young lovers Anthony and Johanna. These characters sing some of my favorite numbers in the show and these two are all you can hope for in these roles. They have terrific chemistry and do a lovely job bringing out the comedy in their scenes. Robb has a sumptuous soprano which is an absolute thrill to hear as she beautifully interprets “Green Finch and Linnet Bird”. She captures Johanna’s innocence but more importantly her fragility, bringing out elements of this character I had not heretofore seen. Eberle is an earnest Anthony and brings a lovely longing and integrity to the role.
Grant Garry is absolutely relishing the role of Beadle Bamford in a performance that is delightful to say nothing of his extraordinary voice. Jacob Dalton brings his gorgeous vocal stylings to the flamboyant role of Adolfo Pirelli and is a joy to watch. M. Hayward Scott is a dashing and wickedly perverse Judge Turpin. His “Johanna” haunts with a passion that simmers just below the surface.
The choice to cast a child in the role of the simple orphan, Tobias, as opposed to a small adult, proves inspired here. In one of the most moving moments in the show, Hudson Barone sings “Not While I’m Around” to Mrs. Lovett with a poignant purity that is heartbreaking. And Liz Kelly Barone is a disturbing and convincing beggar woman who holds a devastating secret.
The intimacy of the Fremont Centre Theatre and the ingenious use of the space makes for a Sweeney Todd that is a ferociously brave story of tortured outsiders who are the personification of all the evil that lurks within us, and what happens when it festers; all told in glorious song. If you dare to partake, this Sweeney casts a spell.
Sweeney Todd runs through February 1, 2020. Tickets available at www.YoungStarsTheatre.org
Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm. Additional matinee added Saturday Feb. 1 at 2pm. Performances held at Fremont Centre Theatre located at 1000 Fremont Ave. (at El Centro), South Pasadena, CA 91030. Free parking is available behind the theatre. Tickets are $30.
Recommended for 13 and up for Adult themes. Parental guidance suggested.