Stephen Sondheim is often regarded as the William Shakespeare of musical theatre by the people who have spent the last 60 years admiring, dissecting, and interpreting his work. The proof for that claim lies in the continuous stream of greatest-of-all-time epithets lavished on him every day and in the variously successful adaptations of his shows in other media.
Most of all though, composer/lyricist Sondheim and playwright Shakespeare are kin to one another because of the way their shows continue to thrive on the stage via the bold reimaginings for modern audiences. For every Julius Caesar starring a surrogate of our current president or one-man Macbeth, there’s a Company in which the company doubles as the orchestra or, in the case of Split Stage Productions’ latest outing, a Sweeney Todd set in an asylum.
Ideally, these concepts should breathe new life into these decades/century-old masterpieces by finding exciting new dimensions to their characters and themes. Unfortunately, director Stephen Santa’s (figuratively) bloodless One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest–Sweeney Todd crossover bows under the weight of its richly atmospheric, yet incongruous setting.
While I don’t think it serves the show particularly well, the work by costume designer Sharon Wiant, lighting designer Mike Pilyih, and set designer Nate Newell are undeniably remarkable. As the patients stalk around the cramped ward of the psychiatric facility before the show begins, it’s hard to know where to place your horror. The patients’ haggard appearances and dirty, distressed clothing hint at their unique diagnoses and abject misery. The flickering lights above create terrifying shadows on the grimy gray walls. The small room from which the nurses sneer at the patients is creatively used to stage a few arresting shadow play sequences.
The design team makes the terror tactile. It’s the direction that muddles that by forcing the narrative of the musical and the narrative of the asylum framing device to compete.
In a moment reminiscent of a memorable musical number from American Horror Story: Asylum, Tobias (Ryan Borgo) implores us by song to attend the tale of Sweeney Todd after being administered electroshock therapy. As he skulks around the room watching the story play out, it becomes clear that the events of this particular tale have not only landed him in the asylum but also haunt him endlessly. It’s not clear to what degree Tobias is projecting his psychosis on to his surroundings versus what’s really happening as his fellow patients and the staff become the characters in the story. Before you can work that out, the prologue is over. Frustratingly, the last few seconds of the epilogue will contradict whatever conclusion you come to about whose story this truly is.
Mr. Borgo overacts Tobias’ trauma a bit as he inhabits and relives it, but he sings beautifully while doing so. He provides the production with a much-needed jolt of energy when he takes center stage.
Occupying center stage most times when Borgo isn’t is Brady Patsy in the role of Sweeney Todd. Todd returns to London with the aptly named Anthony Hope (Dan Mayhak) with a chip on his shoulder and a simple revenge plot on his mind. He will kill the evil Judge Turpin for unfairly banishing him, sexually assaulting his wife, and holding his daughter Johanna (Vanessa Clarke-Deaver) hostage as his ward. When he makes his way back to where he once worked as a barber, he meets Mrs. Lovett (Meighan Lloyd Harding), a downtrodden proprietor of unsavory meat pies. Together, they devise a plan to quench Sweeney’s thirst for vengeance and boost business at Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop. It’s a diabolical plan that must be sung to be believed.
Mr. Patsy growls through Sweeney’s signature arias “My Friends” and “Epiphany” with gusto, but his performance is otherwise muted. He plays the notes of rage of the character well, but doesn’t balance them with Sweeney’s profound emotional anguish. Similarly, Ms. Harding’s Mrs. Lovett is vocally well-realized but ultimately misses the mark. Her choice to turn the character more creepy than kooky renders all the wit of Hugh Wheeler’s libretto and Sondheim’s lyrics null. Their lack of chemistry prevents the pun-derful Act I finale “A Little Priest” from ever taking flight.
Generally, the relationships in this production are not strong. Mr. Mayhak and Ms. Clarke-Deaver’s romance is ice cold. David A. Cary’s flat Judge Turpin is no match for Patsy’s fearsome Sweeney. The bond that develops between Mrs. Lovett and Tobias feels more opportunistic from her point of view and more desperate from his than at all genuine.
Of the cast, Mandie Russak as the Beggar Woman and Brian Mack Sweeney as Beadle Bamford do the best job of creating characters that believably exist in both worlds of this schizophrenic production.
Mr. Santa and Split Stage deserve credit for having the vision and creativity to attempt to reinvent this classic musical thriller. What they’ve created is definitely not your grandma’s Sweeney Todd. The only question I have after seeing it is whose is it?
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street plays at the Lamp Theater through October 13th. For tickets and more information, click here.
Brian Pope is a playwright and pop culture obsessive who has been writing for Pittsburgh in the Round since February of 2016. His plays have been produced by his own theatre company, Non-State Actors, as well as Yinz Like Plays?!, Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, and Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company. He’s also served as dramaturg for City Theatre’s 2018 Young Playwrights Festival and as both stage manager and actor for Alarum Theatre. When he’s not making or reviewing theatre, he’s actively pursuing his other passions, listening to showtunes and watching television.
Categories: Archived Reviews