Not every theater company can attempt “Sweeney Todd.” Between its dark humor and sophisticated, fast-paced text, “Sweeney Todd” has many potential pitfalls. For those unfamiliar with the show, the complex plot can also be incredibly confusing upon first viewing.
This past week’s production of “Sweeney Todd” by the University’s Department of Musical Theatre put all these concerns to rest. It was a tour-de-force in quintessentially Sondheimic writing, a captivating and convincing take on a famous yet flawed work.
The production made use of the Power Center’s large stage and extensive lighting capabilities. In the opening number, when the cast sang from the front of the stage, lights from the pit orchestra shone up on the ensemble, casting eerie shadows on their faces.
The set was simple yet sufficient. Foggy factory-esque windows and pseudo-industrial brick walls cast a mechanical backdrop for the play. It was a barber shop and bakery at times and a judge’s home at others.
While I usually don’t focus on set design in my reviews, I must take some time to acknowledge the barber’s chair — it was easily my favorite aspect of the production. As Sweeney Todd slit the throats of his victims, he turned them away from the audience. A mere press on the petal at his feet turned the chair into a ramp, delivering his victims into the meat pie oven many floors below.
For those unfamiliar with the plot, Todd is a convict who has recently escaped prison. He believes his wife to be dead and his daughter adopted, and he vows to avenge these acts. After winning a bet with a rival barber, Todd opens a barbershop above an (admittedly) terrible meat pie shop. The pies are made out of the flesh of his victims as he slits the throats of various barbershop patrons.
Abysmal as this plot may sound, Sondheim manages to give the plot a humorously peculiar spin. At one point, for example, Todd and Mrs. Lovett (the pie shop baker) sing a lengthy, comical song about the various professions of their victims and the types of pie that they will produce.
The talents of SMTD seniors Allie Re (Mrs. Lovett) and Jamie Colburn (Sweeney Todd) were on full display in this scene. Colburn was horrifying at times and humorous at others, repulsive at points and yet impossible to ignore. Re was hilarious throughout, particularly when it came to her feature numbers (“The Worst Pies in London” standing out the most to me.)
The seemingly indefatigable energy of the large cast of the show also carried it through its nearly three-hour run time. Though not heavily choreographed in a traditional sense, the cast frequently walked hurriedly across the stage or the upper balcony. I felt as though I were amid a bustling 19th-century lower-class community in London.
And while Sondheim and Wheeler’s lyrics have a tendency towards wordy complexity — a complexity only heightened by the strange vernacular of colloquial British English — the cast managed to land much of their jokes. Though it was hard to understand every word, I was constantly engaged, more than willing to put forth the effort to understand the text.
The unusual orchestration of the musical gave it another twist. It feels more like operetta at points then it does modern musical theater — a harp and nine strings are not exactly components of a standard musical theater pit — and yet this production was approachable and engaging even as it was slightly unusual.
In the end, as Todd accidentally murders his wife, intentionally murders Lovett and then is murdered himself, the production managed to maintain the humorous tone that had carried through the work thus far. One common pitfall that I have found in other productions of the work is that it becomes unbelievably morbid at this point. This production, however, managed to maintain a light tone even despite these deaths.
As soon as the show ended, the audience was on their feet for a rowdy standing ovation. This was easily the most enthusiastic response to a University production that I have ever seen, perhaps even on par with the great enthusiasm at MUSKET’s “In The Heights” last year.
From lighting to singing and set design to acting, this production seemingly had no faults. And when it came to applause, the audience (and this critic) surely took notice. As I left the theater, I found that I had forgotten that this was a student production. Had I walked out onto Times Square in New York City, I would not have been particularly surprised.