From the second Judge Turpin (Jacob Martin) sang the first note of the show, I immediately had chills.
The cast of St. Thomas University Musical Theatre’s production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was nothing short of incredible. They mastered Sondheim’s harmonies and pushed characterization beyond the stratosphere.
Sweeney Todd is the story of a barber who returns to London to avenge his wife’s supposed death and his daughter’s kidnapping. He meets Mrs. Lovett, a baker whose business is slowly failing because her pies are awful. Creating a conspiracy together, Todd begins killing his victims in his barbershop and Lovett makes pies out of their ground-up bodies. Their first victim is Pirelli (Dustyn Forbes). When Pirelli dies, his assistant, young Tobias, ends up staying with Todd and Lovett. Todd is exhausting himself– killing person after person, none of whom are his true targets. The goal is to murder Judge Turpin, Todd’s daughter’s kidnapper, and get his daughter, Johanna, back. The plan backfires when people start to realize what he and Lovett have been doing. An innocent kid, a crazy beggarwoman and Todd’s own daughter eventually orchestrate the ugly demise of the “demon barber of Fleet Street.”
To highlight the cast, I will begin with Lucas Gutiérrez-Robert’s demanding and challenging role of Sweeney Todd. Every note was hit, and every choice made with Todd’s character was deliberate and captivating. The essence of a true killer was portrayed brilliantly, but the actor didn’t shy away from exposing his warmth to the audience either. Todd has several moments throughout the show that reveal a beating heart within the character. From his longing for Johanna, his decision to spare a father from death because of the man’s daughter and the heartbreaking moment where he cradles his long-lost lover dead in his arms—Sweeney Todd is more than just the stereotypical “cold-blooded killer” that certain productions make him out to be. It takes a well-trained actor and a director with vision to achieve that kind of portrayal.
Raine O’Connor’s Mrs. Lovett was whimsical; her willfully ignorant attitude was beautifully complementary to the performance as a whole. In my opinion, the real villain of Sweeney Todd is not Todd, but Lovett—and the St. Thomas production brought that to the forefront. She seems to get away with handing off the dirty work and simply reaping the rewards.
Johanna and Anthony, played by Sydney Hallett and Ben Smith, displayed a compelling love story amidst the chaos of a barber shop turned slaughterhouse. Hallett’s voice was hauntingly helpless, and Smith’s Anthony was excitable, yet delicate.
Tobias Ragg was played by Megan Murphy, a Grade 12 student. Despite being younger than other cast members, Murphy seemed as solid in her acting choices as anyone else on stage. She was perfectly creepy near the end when she sang “Ring Around the Rosie.”
The only two critiques I can offer for this phenomenal performance have to do with volume and sightlines. All of the lead cast were easy to hear however, the chorus was sometimes difficult to hear. Occasionally this was because they were drowned out when speaking to a character with a mic. Even when the chorus sang together, the orchestration sometimes overpowered their collective voice. Secondly, in one of the final scenes, Johanna hides from Todd by the staircase. For some of the audience, this part as well as the actual final scene were difficult to see because of the placement of the chairs. Sightlines in the space were difficult, and shifting the position may have improved them.
The costumes and props were all time-period appropriate, and the set was simple. The direction by Tania Breen was light-handed and meshed well with the choreography by Courtney Arsenault. Ross Simonds’ musical direction was beautiful and eerie. Overall, the coordination of the production between tech, cast, crew and management made for an immersive and overall enjoyable experience.