One person's murderous urge is another's meat market. Such is the grisly through line of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The deliciously twisted, Tony Award-winning 1979 musical about a man and his razor gives a whole new meaning to supply chain management.
Based on the ghoulish Victorian "penny dreadful" novels starring the sinister stylist, the story of Sweeney Todd was in the 1970s adapted by Christopher Bond as a drama, only to finally achieve its full emotional height by way of Sondheim's epic score. Last spring, the work emerged to steal the New York theater scene in the Barrow Street Theater's production, which was served up complete with meat pies for the munching. If I only had a meat pie for every time the production popped up in my social media feed. With no New York trips on the horizon, I was left to eat only my spleen.
Now, Charleston audiences can feast on this dark, deeply satisfying fare in a tremendous new production by Village Repertory Company at Woolfe Street Playhouse. Directed by Keely Enright with musical direction by Leah Megli, the show forgoes a full-on orchestra for a piano, clarinet and cello — far more fitting for the constraints of the space, which was set up as a cabaret. Bringing together an impressive ensemble of phenomenal vocal talents, Sweeney Todd makes a resounding case for Charleston having more than ample chops — and pipes — to present such ambitious musical offerings. Number after pitch-perfect number, this show is a sublimely stone-cold killer.
Like the once benign Walter White, Sweeney Todd (Bradley Keith), has broken bad. The year is 1785, and he has returned to London after 15 years of banishment in Australia. This was due to the trumped-up verdict of the creepy Judge Turpin (Nat Jones), who possesses the dangerous double threat of a high ranking and the hots for Todd's wife. On his return, Todd is capable of anything to pay tribute to his ruined family, particularly slitting the throat of the one who compromised it.
Handily, Todd's training as a barber makes him uniquely suited to the task, and he has the sharp-edged equipment to prove it. What's more, he has in his camp a meat pie-making shopkeeper by the name of Mrs. Lovett (Kathy Summer), who has her own agenda for egging him on. As the plot twists, so does the two's craven little business: In its chilling look at the Industrial Age, man is quite literally the machine of industry, thrust down the conveyor shoot as tomorrow's over-the-counter offerings.
This all plays out in a gripping, mounting arc of song — from the chorus's ominous beginning ballad to Todd's grievous ruminations. As Todd, Keith is hell bent, made palpable by both his rich baritone and shell-shocked carriage. As Mrs. Lovett, Summer employs her alto to sharply shape this jovially nasty bit of work. They are countered by the sweet soprano solos of his Todd's daughter, Johanna, played with an ingénue's elan by the Katherine Anne Kuckleman, as well as the duets with her love interest Anthony Hope, thanks to the terrific tenor Ryan Hendricks. Throughout, the excellent chorus keeps the momentum of menace lurching forward, while grounding the show with ominous ballast.
A cautionary note from my opening night experience: The sound was initially as butchered as the hapless patrons of the barbershop, altogether muffling the first numbers. However, by the second act, the technological issues had been addressed, and I was able to fully experience the vocal power and mastery that were previously overpowered. This regrettable study in man-vs.-machine gave me new appreciation for the importance of proper amplification — and considerable empathy for he hardworking performers, particularly those singing in the lower registers. With these considerable challenges overcome, I do hope the cast is now freed up to engage in a bit more sport with the demented depths of their characters.
When sufficiently sorted, the cast fully filled the space — and a staggering, impressive space it was. Designed by Enright, the two-tiered, grimy extravaganza of a set was anchored by the infamous meat shop, with Todd's barbaric barbershop atop. Winding stairs, trap doors and more resulted in a London streetscape that teemed with nefarious activity, from the goings-on in the evil basement to the second-floor sanatorium.
And, like the Barrow Street Theater production, at Woolfe Street you can have your meat pie and eat it, too. Village Rep also offers a ticket option adding $21.50 to the price, which entitles the bearer to pie and mash prepared by HOM restaurant, as well as a drink, before the show. (Since I passed on this, I will limit my critique to the theatrical arts.)
I first discovered Sweeney Todd in my high school years, during a summer arts program in Greenville (the precursor to today's Governor's School for the Arts). The songs raged through our dorms, infecting a new generation of theater lovers through its lugubrious audacity. At Woolfe Street, I immediately spotted Henry Cabaniss, one of those very fellow high school chums, milling about the house as part of the chorus. This same music had haunted our early days embracing musicals, and resonates still. Like Sweeney Todd, the chance sighting gave me a bit of a chill – for the passage of time, for the music that transcends. I feel sure Mr. Sondheim would approve.