To mark its 45th anniversary, TheatreWorks is opening its fall season with a reinterpretation of the old warhorse, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Though it remains the 1979 Tony-award winning musical by Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim, (famously starring Angela Lansbury on stage and Johnny Depp on film), the Palo Alto-based TheatreWorks has chosen to transport the story to 1940s London during the Blitz. It proves to be a compelling, but sometimes awkward choice.
As part of the staging, both the lobby and theater of the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts has been decked out to give the feel of World War II London. A heap of gas masks is piled in the lobby, while vintage signs directing patrons to air raid shelters and propaganda posters of Churchill have been hung inside the theater. Most impressive of all is the factory and air raid tunnel set on stage.
The production opens with the city bracing for an impending blitz. A man and a young sailor named Anthony (played by Jack Mosbacher), meet and the elder tells a story about a barber named Benjamin Barker and his wife Johanna. The barber was falsely imprisoned by a judge who kidnapped his wife. Soon, the man (David Studwell) reveals himself to be the barber, who has taken the name Sweeney Todd. He also reveals his plans to wreak vengeance on the Judge (Lee Strawn).
Todd is aided in his quest by Mrs. Lovett (Torry Ross), the wild proprietor of a pie shop, who is is quick to let him a space above her shop and introduces the bloodthirsty barber to the pair of Chekhovian barber’s razors she’s been saving. The majority of the musical’s spoken lines fall to Ross, whose acting is the most notable of the production—playing Mrs. Lovett with great charisma and charm.
The story then shifts to Johanna (Mindy Lym), still trapped in the judge’s house, where Anthony first spies her singing on a balcony and immediately and falls for her, unaware that she is Todd’s wife.
Next, a street peddler (Spencer Kiely) tells a crowd about a hair-growth elixir. An Italian barber appears (played hilariously by Noel Anthony) as the drug’s proprietor. Sweeney challenges the man to a barber-off, in which he triumphs. Soon Todd’s services are in demand. Mrs. Lovett tells everyone that Todd has a barbershop above her own store. The judge plans a visit and Todd plans for revenge.
Fans of musical theater—or Johnny Depp, for that matter—know the rest of the story. The real question is whether this new TheatreWorks’ interpretation is sufficiently innovative and well-performed to keep the subject fresh and the audience engaged?
The answer is mixed, but positive. The musical itself is, of course, witty and playful—and TheatreWorks makes fine use of a powerful group of actors and singers to seamlessly deliver the story. The script has many quick jumps, but the actors keep up, and the story is aided by the varied and humorous music styles.
If Ross’ strength is her acting, Lym (as Johanna) has the standout voice of the show. It is powerful and versatile—rich with classical tone, but still nuanced enough for the sing-song-iest of Sondheim’s songs.
The staging, however, is more problematic. By transporting the story to World War II London, director Robert Kelley seems to have wanted to freshen up the now-predictable Victorian London setting of the original production. But by remaining faithful to Sondheim’s musical and lyrical arrangements, it is almost impossible for the show to inhabit a reality that took place more than a half-century later. Thus, the characters find themselves trapped in a strange narrative space in which the singular circumstances of London during the Blitz are shown but hardly mentioned. No matter how much you change the costumes, put up posters, add a few lines of contextual dialogue, and build an impressive set, World War II London is a long way from the decadent, corrupt and Dickensian London of mid-reign Queen Victoria.
The good news is that this incongruity is easy to overlook—and the strong performances save the day. To a first-time viewer, TheatreWorks’ presentation of Sweeney Todd will bring all of the fun and substance of the original musical. As for long-time fans, a bit of advice: first enjoy the stunning setting, then enjoy the very different, but immensely entertaining and well-performed, musical.
OCT. 8 thru NOV. 2