Among the creators of American musicals that suggest the quality of classical opera, Stephen Sondheim ranks very high; and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which PlayMakers Repertory Company is performing now through April 23rd in the Paul Green Theatre in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Center for Dramatic Art, is a prime example. As composer and lyricist of this opus, Sondheim worked with British-born American novelist, librettist, and screenwriter Hugh Wheeler to fashion one of the bloodiest and funniest and deepest of America’s musical plays.
The story originated in a “penny dreadful” in the mid-Victorian era, when capitalism and industrialization were rising, under the title “The String of Pearls,” in which the victims were killed by breaking their necks as they fell backwards into the next floor. If they didn’t die in the fall, Sweeney Todd ran down the stairs and slit their throats, uttering (and thus coining) the phrase “I’ll polish him off.” In later versions, his motive for mass murders — having been brutally abused by the corrupt system — was introduced, thus connecting cannibalism with capitalism. Audiences have long been fascinated with how easily the ordinary can morph into terror.
When the curtain rises on Sweeney Todd, Benjamin Barker has just returned from years in the Australian penal colony that he was sentenced to by a judge who lusted after his beautiful wife. He learns his daughter has become the ward of the judge who sentenced him and whose intention it now is to marry her. Barker renames himself Sweeney Todd and conspires with Mrs. Lovett to enrich the flavor of her meat pies with human flesh.
Todd is played by David St. Louis, an actor with credits on Broadway, in movies, and on television, and has the chops and deep rich voice to prove it. St. Louis creates a fearsomely menacing character whom you cannot hate. He brings out the depth of pain that his character lives in, and the breadth of love that he carries for his daughter.
Annie Golden brings to Mrs. Lovett an inexorable force and determination, a bright comedic sense, a clear voice that blends and contrasts with St. Louis’s as needed, and high-quality acting abilities.
Durham actor Jade Arnold plays Anthony Hope, who rescues Todd from a shipwreck and becomes his truest friend. Arnold delivers a powerful performance as his character falls in love with Todd’s daughter. His rendition of the song “Johanna” demonstrates all the passion of a young man in love, and his onstage presence is strong and dynamic.
Beadle Bamford, the evil factotum for the unscrupulous Judge Turpin, is done by Blake Segal. Segal is a delight as the weaselly little toad responsible for Turpin’s dirty work. His handling of the song “Ladies in Their Sensitivities,” a difficult, singsongy affair, is a virtual lesson in singing elocution.
Brian Owen gives us the con-artist barber, Adolfo Pirelli, with the bluff and bluster any snake-oil salesman should have and then some. Owen commands every scene that he’s in and is perfect balance for the dynamism of St. Louis. He is simply hilarious.
Young Mya Ison is beautiful and performs with rare talent as Johanna, the imprisoned ward of Judge Turpin. Her grace and purity are bolstered in her song “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” by the sense of her longing for both freedom and true love.
Beggar Woman is performed touchingly and yet with amazing mirth by Julie Fishell, scrabbling for every morsel and penny and caterwauling like an alley cat. But beneath her disturbed exterior, we sense her internal quest for sanity.
Ray Dooley is Judge Turpin, a thoroughly evil, corrupt man who ultimately is the cause of the whole situation. Dooley reeks of the nefarious, off-handedly expects his suggestions to be obeyed no matter how despicable, and works magnetically with St. Louis in “Pretty Women..”
Tobias Ragg, Adolfo Pirelli’s young, slow-witted side-man, is sensitively played by Max Bitar. Ragg becomes the waiter in Mrs. Lovett’s burgeoning meat-pie business, and Bitar choreographs his body into gymnastic postures moving among the tables. His duet with Annie Golden, “Not While I’m Around,” is sweet and tender.
Director Jen Wineman creates an explosive, colorful experience that includes episodes of melancholy, titillating humor, downright horror, heart-throbbing passion, but not a moment of respite. Her remarkable staff of choreographer Tito Hernandez, lighting designer Charlie Morrison, costume designer Bill Brewer, scenic designer Jan Chambers, sound designer Maria Württele, and music director Mark Hartman and the ensemble of dancers and singers deserve more space than we have left, except to say this wonderful production owes a great deal of its entertainment value to their efforts.
SECOND OPINION: April 4th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article69855852.html; April 4th Raleigh, NC Triangle Arts and Entertainment review by Lamarr Fowlkes: http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2016/04/tell-the-tale-of-sweeney-todd/; March 31st Raleigh, NC Time Warner Cable News Central NC preview by Caroline Blair: http://www.twcnews.com/nc/triangle-sandhills/in-depth-interview/2016/03/31/in-depth–sweeney-todd-.html; March 30th Chapel Hill, NC Daily Tar Heel (student newspaper) preview by Maggie Mouat: http://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2016/03/sweeney-todd-kills-it-on-stage-at-paul-green-theatre and March 11th preview by Maria Mullis: http://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2016/03/orange-is-the-new-black-acress-to-appear-in-playmakers-sweeney-todd. March 30th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/sweeney-todd-the-demon-barber-of-fleet-street/Event?oid=4803768; March 23rd Chapel Hill, NC Chapelboro.com/WCHL interview with director Jen Wineman, conducted by Aaron Keck: http://chapelboro.com/news/arts/attend-the-tale-of-sweeney-todd; March 17th Durham, NC Herald-Sun preview by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: http://www.heraldsun.com/lifestyles/a-bloody-musical-with-playmakers-sweeney-todd/article_c01f76ce-ebbc-11e5-96f7-eb524bb7b6a1.html (Note: You must subscribe to read this article). (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the March 30th Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2016/03/broadways-david-st-louis-and-annie-golden-star-in-sweeney-todd-march-30-april-23-at-playmakers-rep/.)
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET, starring David St. Louis as Sweeney Todd and Annie Golden as Mrs. Lovett, at 7:30 p.m. April 5-8, 2 and 7:30 p.m. April 9, 2 p.m. April 10, 7:30 p.m. April 12-16, 2 p.m. April 17, and 7:30 p.m. April 21-23 in the Paul Green Theatre, 150 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27599, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.
TICKETS: $15 and up ($10 UNC students and $12 other college students), with discounts for UNC faculty and staff and U.S. military personnel, except $15 (general admission) Tuesday Community Night performances.
PRESENTER: http://www.playmakersrep.org/, https://www.facebook.com/playmakersrep, https://twitter.com/playmakersrep, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PlayMakers_Repertory_Company, and http://www.youtube.com/user/PlayMakersRep.
PRC BLOG (Page to Stage): http://playmakersrep.blogspot.com/.
NOTE 1: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive-listening devices will be available at all performances.
NOTE 3: There will be FREE post-show discussions with members of the creative team following the show’s 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 6th, and 2 p.m. Sunday, April 10th, performances.
NOTE 4: There will be an Open Captioning Performance at 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 9th (for more information, click http://playmakersrep.org/outreach/allaccess/opencaption).
NOTE 5: UNC’s Program in the Humanities and Human Values will host a program entitled Table Talk: Creative Choices from Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, featuring new PlayMakers Rep producing artistic director Vivienne Benesch, dramaturg Gregory Kable, and scenic designer Jan Chambers, at 7 p.m. on Monday, April 11th, at the Siena Hotel in Chapel Hill. Tickets are $80, which includes a three-course dinner. For details, call 919-962-1544 or click http://humanities.unc.edu/programs/special-event/tabletalk2016/.
NOTE 6: On Friday, April 15th, the UNC General Alumni Association will host An Evening at PlayMakers, which includes a preshow reception with PRC’s artistic staff, starting at 6 p.m., followed by the 7:30 p.m. performance of Sweeney Todd. The cost per person is $60 ($40 for GAA members), which includes the theater ticket. To register online, click https://alumni.unc.edu/events/an-evening-at-playmakers-sweeney-todd/.
NOTE 7: The Lucy Daniels Foundation and the North Carolina Psychoanalytic Society will sponsor FREE post-show “Mindplay” discussion after the 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 16th, and 2 p.m. Sunday, April 17th, performances.
Sweeney Todd (character): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sweeney_Todd (Wikipedia).
Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1973 play): http://www.samuelfrench.com/p/1746/sweeney-todd-the-demon-barber-of-fleet-street (Samuel French, Inc.).
Christopher Bond (book): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Bond (Wikipedia).
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979 Broadway and 1980 West End musical): http://www.mtishows.com/show_detail.asp?showid=000075 (Music Theatre International), http://www.ibdb.com/show.php?id=8451 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sweeney_Todd:_The_Demon_Barber_of_Fleet_Street (Wikipedia).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Study Guide: http://www.mtishowspace.com/action/file/download?file_guid=193716 (Music Theatre International).
Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics): http://www.sondheim.org/ (Stephen Sondheim Society), http://www.ibdb.com/Person/View/12430 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0814227/ (Internet Movie Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Sondheim (Wikipedia).
Hugh Wheeler (book): http://www.ibdb.com/Person/View/6402 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0923839/ (Internet Movie Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hugh_Wheeler (Wikipedia).
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007 film): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0408236/ (Internet Movie Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sweeney_Todd:_The_Demon_Barber_of_Fleet_Street_%282007_film%29 (Wikipedia).
Jen Wineman (Brooklyn, NY-based PRC guest director): http://jenwineman.com/ (official website), http://playmakersrep.org/artists/jen-wineman/ (PlayMakers Rep bio), and http://lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/42504 (Internet Off-Broadway Database).
Tito Hernandez (Raleigh, NC-based choreographer and Dance Department Head at the North Carolina Theatre Conservatory): http://playmakersrep.org/artists/tito-hernandez/ (PlayMakers Rep bio) and http://nctheatre.com/page/about-conservatory (NCT bio).
EDITOR’S NOTE: Martha Keravuori is a life-long theater artist — an actress, director, and stage manager — in North Carolina, around the country, and overseas. She has a theater degree from UNC-Greensboro, and has been active in the arts in Raleigh for the past 40 years. Martha is the retired executive director of the North Carolina Theatre Conference. Chuck Galle returned to Raleigh last year after a 17-year absence. He was active in community theater for many years, and directed the troupe of maximum-security inmates at Raleigh’s Central Prison known as the Central Prison Players. In New England, he performed on stage, on TV, and in films. He is the author of Stories I Never Told My Daughter — An Odyssey, which can be ordered on his website: http://www.chuckgalle.com/. Chuck Galle and Martha Keravuori review theater for Boom! Magazine of Cary. Click here to read more of their reviews for Boom! Magazine and here to read more of their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.