“Sweeney Todd” a Bloody Good Production
By Skip Sheffield
Basing a musical on a remorseless serial killer seems unlikely at best. Yet the character of Sweeney Todd, the “Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” has fascinated people since its creation in 1846 as a “penny dreadful” story.
Palm Beach Dramaworks has put its reputation on the line with a full-blown production of the 1979 Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler production, based on a 1973 play by Christopher Bond. It runs through Aug. 6.
Sondheim was at his tongue-twisting peak with his re-creation of mid-19th century London. The song “No Place Like London” introduces principal characters Anthony Hope (Paul Louis Lessard), Sweeney Todd (Shane R. Tanner) and a Beggar Woman (Shelley Keelor). How can a beggar woman be a principal character? You will find out by the final curtain.
Sweeney Todd is a man wronged. His wife Lucy was raped and murdered by the devious Judge Turpin (Michael McKenzie). His daughter Johanna (Jennifer Molly Bell) has been virtually imprisoned by the Judge. When the aptly-named Anthony Hope falls for Johanna, a series of events will take place to entangle Sweeney Todd and the Judge.
There is another principal character named Mrs. Lovett (Ruthie Stephens). Nellie, as she is called, runs a shop selling “The Worst Pies in London.” When Sweeney Todd moves into Mrs. Lovett’s apartment, he will provide a solution to her meat shortage problem.
Meat pies are a very British thing, but this play, directed by the redoubtable Clive Cholerton, is specifically set in 19th century England, when class distinctions were much more prominent. Judge Turpin was of the arrogant upper class, Sweeney Todd, whose original name was Benjamin Barker, was not. Stephen Sondheim has said this is a play about obsession. Sweeney Todd was nothing if not obsessed.
We would be remiss if we did not remark on the ingenious set design, which features an onstage elevator, or the lighting design, which enhances Sweeney Todd’s moments of madness. The almost unseen but definitely heard musical ensemble, led by Manny Schvartzman, elegantly tackles Sondheim’s difficult score. It may not be the most lovable musical, but “Sweeney Todd” is an impressive success.
Tickets are $67 adults, $47 students, but playgoers age 18-40 simply pay their age. Call 561-514-4042 or go to www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.