The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Sweeney Todd may not be everyone’s favourite musical, but the production now on stage at the Shaw Festival Theatre will thrill any fans of horror musical theatre. With Stephen Sondheim’s fast-paced music and lyrics telling the story, there are very few spoken words. To get the most from this production, you need to listen carefully. You also need to appreciate the darkness of this musical.
The story of the demon barber may have begun as an urban legend, and there are those who still want to believe that it’s true. It was written down as a serialized story in the 1800s, and was even a movie in 1928 and 1936. Then the brilliant lyricist Sondheim expanded the plot and told the story in song, first appearing on Broadway in 1979, then in film in 2007.
In Sondheim’s version, Benjamin Barker is sent to prison on trumped up charges to silence him after Judge Turpin rapes his beautiful wife. Years later he is released from jail and wants to get his revenge, so changes his name to Sweeney Todd. He takes up with Mrs. Lovett who by her own admission makes the worst pies in London. He learns from her that his wife is dead and his daughter is a ward of the Judge. When a fellow barber, a shyster named Pirelli, recognizes Sweeney as Barker and threatens to tell, Sweeney slits his throat and Mrs. Lovett bakes him into a meat pie. The throat slitting becomes easier with every victim and the pies become tastier and more popular. Sweeney Todd works on elaborate plans to attract the Judge to his barber chair, which is complete with a chute to send the dead bodies down to the basement for meat and then incineration.
The team of Todd and Lovett are actually quite charming in the first act, as they perfect their craft. He becomes known for his close shaves, and she gains a reputation for her delicious pies.
There are many unusual plot twists and turns in this horror story and even much humour. Then the second act grows very dark.
Corrine Koslo owns the stage as Mrs. Lovett. She captures the essence of a woman who wants more from life: a man to grow old with, and booming business making pies. Koslo sings a rousing rendition of A Little Priest to close the first act. The point being that if you make a pie with priest it will taste heavenly. Or maybe you’d prefer a shepherd’s pie peppered with actual shepherd. Koslo has perfect comedic timing in the delivery of Sondheim’s rhyming lyrics. Benedict Campbell is a brooding and nasty Sweeney Todd.
Kyle Blair as the fancy, yet bogus Pirelli provides comic relief. Andrew Broderick is charming as Tobias the child who assists Mrs. Lovett, while Patty Jamieson is appropriately frightening as the beggar woman. Marcus Nance and Jay Turvey aptly portray the evil and corrupt Judge and Beadle. Jeff Irving is the young sailor in love with Johanna, played by Kristi Frank. It is especially sweet seeing these two lovers singing beautifully to each other, knowing they are married in real life. The ensemble, at times the narrators of the story, also take on various roles as Londoners, from snake oil customers to insane asylum residents.
The set is appropriately dark and unpleasant. Typical of Sondheim, the music is sometimes a cacophony of the various characters singing different lyrics and tunes, backed by a 15-piece orchestra.
Many who enjoy musicals may not appreciate this violent horror show, but those who appreciate Sondheim will love this production.
Sweeney Todd continues in repertoire at The Shaw Festival, Niagara on the Lake until October 19. For tickets, visit www.shawfest.com or call 1-800-511-7429.
Photo: Benedict Campbell as Sweeney Todd. Photo by David Cooper.
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Directed by Jackie Maxwell
Musical Direction by Paul Sportelli
Choreographed by Valerie Moore
Performed by Corrine Koslo, Benedict Campbell, Kyle Blaire, Andrew Broderick, Kristi Frank, Jeff Irving, Patty Jamieson, Marcus Nance, Jay Turvey et al
Produced by The Shaw Festival
Shaw Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
July 17 to October 19, 2016
Reviewed by Mary Alderson