Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is one of the crowned jewels of musical theatre, and is quite possibly musician and lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece (with proper credit due to the book by Hugh Wheeler, of course). Since premiering on Broadway in 1979, this show has been broadcast, revived, adapted into a hit film, and licensed for countless performances all across the country; its score has entered the lexicon of great showtunes with selections like “The Worst Pies in London”, “Pretty Women”, “Not While I’m Around”, and “Johanna” being particularly haunting, often recorded, and used in many an audition. Columbus’s Imagine Productions is now tackling this piece after their sterling production of Thoroughly Modern Millie a few months ago, a production better than the show probably deserved. Alas, the situation is quite the opposite this time around.
Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is about a barber previously known as Benjamin Barker who has just been released after fifteen years in prison on a trumped up charge, returning to London with revenge on his mind. Judge Turpin is the man who took away Todd’s daughter, Johanna, and caused the apparent death of his wife, Lucy. Todd returns to his former lodgings above Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop and starts up his barber business again, though wielding his beloved straight razors with deadly results. Across his path come Anthony, who rescued Sweeney at sea and falls in love with his daughter; Pirelli, a scheming charlatan and his assistant, Tobias; a beggar woman, always lurking about; and Beadle Bamford, Judge Turpin’s valet.
Something odd is going on with Keith Robinson as Sweeney Todd, a part for which he has the voice and stature. He lacks menace and bite in the part, coming across as friendly instead of fiendish. Why does he smile so much? Surely his exaggerated makeup and odd costume don’t help, as he appears to be Bea Arthur dressed up as Frankenstein’s monster for a very special episode of “Maude”. Mr. Robinson comes alive in the part only sporadically, talented as he is, and I hate to say I found the same to be true (though to a lesser extent) with Jesika Lehner as Mrs. Lovett. Ms. Lehner brings a sexiness to the part that is not unwelcome (I’m not sure there is anything Ms. Lehner can do to avoid that other than to wear a burlap sack), but key moments during her first meeting with Sweeney Todd and the finale are missing beats in which the audience gets a peek into the devious machinations going on in her mind. It’s almost as if both Mr. Robinson and Ms. Lehner are afraid to be truly devilish and repugnant, and it’s a shame to see their obvious talents not focused properly on these roles, one of many things I blame on the director.
The orchestra sounds particularly divine as conducted by Tyler Rogols with musical direction by Ashley Woodard (Imagine consistently has one of the best – if not THE best – group of musicians to play at their shows in Columbus), but the sound of the music almost always drowns out the singing! What’s worse is that some of the performers don’t appear to be properly mic’d or amplified, particularly Tobias (Johnny Robison) whose entire performance is almost completely inaudible; Jesika Lehner’s mic cuts in and out throughout “God, That’s Good” depending on what direction she is facing, deeply impairing her performance as Mrs. Lovett through no fault of her own. I’m not sure exactly what is going on with the sound design, but someone needs to reevaluate things – adjust EQ, replace some microphones, or steer the vocals to a separate set of speakers; so many lines and lyrics are lost because of the varying sound issues.
The two standout performances from this production come from the unlikeliest of places (at least to me) – Elizabeth Zimmerman as Johanna and Kent Stuckey as Judge Turpin. Ms. Zimmerman has an incredibly strong and high singing voice and isn’t hampered by the sound issues, and Mr. Stuckey has a deep gruffness to his voice that is powerful and disturbingly sexy; one almost wouldn’t blame Johanna for picking this Judge Turpin over the squeaky-clean and rather wimpy Anthony (Justin King, who sings beautifully but needs to lose the blue neck kerchief). Honorable mention goes to Brian Horne as quite a fancy and foppish Pirelli, though his performance is also compromised by the poor sound in the scene leading up to his murder; it’s another scene where it isn’t clear what exactly he said to bring about his demise. Ryan Kopycinsky is also a fine Beadle Bamford, particularly funny in the scene where he sings parlor songs when Mrs. Lovett is trying to get rid of him.
Director Ryan Scarlata doesn’t appear to have a firm grasp on how best to handle a show of this size and scale as many sequences (“Poor Thing”, the contest scene with Pirelli, the scenes leading up to and into “A Little Priest” and “God, That’s Good”, and the finale) are difficult to decipher unless one already knows the story (the abduction and rape of Lucy is particularly obscure). I can’t pinpoint exactly where the problem lies in each instance in which the plot isn’t coming across, but surely the minimalist set (just some scaffolding and a few props here and there, though Mrs. Lovett does hang a sign once her shop has been revitalized – and leaves it up even when scenes play out that take place elsewhere) and the lighting cues which change abruptly don’t help the situation, nor does the sound. Some members of the ensemble are also overacting terribly, sticking out like they escaped from an asylum with no one there to reign them in.
A major misstep is having what appears to be the specter of Lucy (Candice Kight, appearing quite ethereal) appear onstage whenever Sweeney commits a murder. Ms. Kight leans in and blows red confetti in place of blood when someone’s throat is slashed (which is a neat idea), but her presence makes absolutely no sense as Lucy is found to be alive later in the show! “Who’s that girl?” I heard people question around me, and I wondered myself until I realized what was going on. When it is revealed that the beggar woman (Michelle Weiser, who projects too much health to be a homeless beggar to me) is Lucy, it doesn’t come across properly because of the presence of Ms. Kight throughout the play. It’s another example of how this production has moments that are only clear to people that know the show intimately while alienating that very same audience at the same time! I don’t even want to go into how the “dead” people simply walk off stage and behind a curtain, making it difficult to suspend disbelief that anyone is in any real danger, something necessary for this show to work.
Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a brilliant show, but this production fails to do it justice. The woman next to me kept checking her program, presumably to see how many songs were left until intermission and then how many until the show was over, and that should not be the case with such an superlative piece. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing so many members of this cast in other shows, and it breaks my heart to see so much talent on the stage go to waste. This isn’t a disaster of a production, just a dishearteningly droll and undistinguished one, the first time I can say I’ve been so disappointed in a show by Imagine Productions.
** out of ****
Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street continues through to October 11th at Wall Street located at 144 North Wall Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.imaginecolumbus.org/sweeney-todd.html