To darken a story that already hinges on rape, murder, and cannibalism takes some doing, but the edgy Lyric Stage production pulls it off.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Hugh Wheeler. Directed and staged by Spiro Veloudos. Music director, Jonathan Goldberg. Scenic design, Janie E. Howland. Produced by the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon Street, 2nd floor, Boston, MA, through October 11.
By Evelyn Rosenthal
In the Lyric Stage’s Sweeney Todd, director Spiro Veloudos makes the already dark 1979 Sondheim/Wheeler musical a few shades darker. From the stark, ash-gray split-level set to the occasional eruption of blood-red lighting and spooky organ music, this powerful production takes its cue from the bleak mood of our own increasingly uneasy times.
To darken a story that already hinges on rape, murder, and cannibalism takes some doing. Many will know the plot, parts of which originated in an 1846 English “penny dreadful” novel, the rest filled in by Christopher Bond’s 1973 play, the basis of the musical. The corrupt Judge Turpin, with the help of his smarmy Beadle, falsely imprisons and exiles London barber Benjamin Barker in order to steal Barker’s wife; Barker escapes and returns to exact revenge and find Lucy and their daughter, Johanna. What he discovers turns him into the “demon barber,” now called Sweeney Todd, who dispatches his victims with the help of a straight razor and landlady Mrs. Lovett, who bakes them into meat pies that become the toast of London.
The Lyric’s production is full of strong singing, a must in a challenging musical that requires operatic voices in many roles. Even without microphones, most of Sondheim’s acidly brilliant lyrics came through loud and clear, except in a few cases. Though both Meghan LaFlam (Johanna) and Lisa Yuen (Beggar Woman) have lovely voices, at times I couldn’t make out their words. It took a few scenes before Amelia Broome and Christopher Chew found their voices and their rhythm—some of the lower pitches challenged his vocal range, and the “Worst Pies in London” number needed more punch. But they soon got on track, singing splendidly and making their Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd the compelling figures they must be for a production of this show to succeed.
Indeed, two more compelling musical theater characters have rarely been concocted. The great Angela Lansbury was the first Mrs. Lovett, and in the 1982 telecast of the touring production she sports a comically bizarre hairstyle and plays her as a dowdy, chattering, cheerfully amoral Cockney with a dash of music-hall mugging. The Lyric’s Amelia Broome, with tamer hair, plays it less campy; she gives the lovesick Lovett a sexier spin, especially in Sondheim’s tour de force of rhyming double entendre, “A Little Priest.” Having come up with the perfect way to dispose of Sweeney’s victims, she offers him imaginary pies filled with various types of “meat” (“It’s fop. Finest in the shop. And we have some shepherd’s pie peppered/With actual shepherd on top.”). Broome’s playful, seductive delivery adds to the fun of one of the show’s most memorable numbers.
Given the injustices heaped on Sweeney, it’s not surprising that he eventually snaps, and some actors, like George Hearn in the 1982 telecast, have played him as wild-eyed and seething. But the Lyric’s Christopher Chew reins in the crazy and gives us a melancholic, brooding Sweeney, a complex figure of pity as well as fear. While Broome/Mrs. Lovett tries to lighten his mood by planning their rosy future in the lilting “By the Sea,” Chew sits stone-faced and inattentive, lost in thoughts of revenge. Clearly, he’s not ready to “move on.”
As monstrous as Sweeney’s murderous actions are, somehow we end up rooting for him to lure his nemesis to the barber chair for the “closest shave” of his life. His elusive target, the evocatively named Judge Turpin, displays his moral turpitude (turpintude?) at every turn, but never more so than in a scene so disturbing to some that it’s often cut, as it was from the touring production. Sweeney discovers that Turpin adopted his daughter Johanna after raping his wife (in another chilling scene, a masked-ball orgy reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut), and now lusts after and plans to marry the girl. As the Judge, the fine baritone Paul C. Soper tears into the dissonant “Johanna (Judge’s Song),” baring his torso and his depraved feelings for the girl as he attempts to tame—and inflame—his desires by flagellating himself. Thirty-five years after it shocked some on Broadway, the scene still discomforts, its creepiness elevated by Soper’s intense performance.
Countering the homicidal nihilism of Sweeney is the sweet optimism of Anthony, the young sailor who rescues him at sea, takes him to London, and promptly falls in love with Johanna. I’m wondering if the appealing Sam Simahk, a standout as Rapunzel’s Prince in last season’s Lyric Stage production of Into the Woods, is experiencing a bit of déjà vu: as Anthony, here he is again, rescuing a beautiful young woman with long blonde hair, kept locked up and secluded by a jealous guardian. This time, too, his fine voice and engaging presence serve Simahk and the role well.
The other innocent optimist is Tobias Ragg, assistant to Adolfo Pirelli (played with florid finesse by Davron S. Monroe), a rival barber who becomes Sweeney’s first victim. As the simple, loyal Toby, Phil Tayler brings a terrific energy to all his scenes. In his duet with Broome, “Not While I’m Around,” Tayler makes Toby’s tender resolve to “protect” Mrs. Lovett surprisingly touching and believable. Also effective is Remo Airaldi, who, as the reprehensible Beadle, oozes just the right mix of nastiness and oily charm. And the excellent ensemble brings a robust spirit to their numerous reprises of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” at the same time smoothly managing complicated transitions between the set’s two levels.
Of course, Sweeney’s gloominess is as new as today’s headlines and as old as the Greeks and Shakespeare. The show’s genius lies in how Sondheim and Wheeler wove together elements of classical tragedy—revenge, madness, murder, hidden motives, secret identities, and few characters left standing in the end—with a glorious musical score and witty, acerbic lyrics. The result is one of the greatest of all Broadway musicals, a multilayered show that is also one of the most difficult to sing, and for the orchestra to play. Fortunately for Boston theater-goers, the Lyric Stage is up to the task, serving up a thoughtfully conceived, high-caliber Sweeney.
Evelyn Rosenthal is the former editor in chief and head of publications at the Harvard Art Museums. She is also a professional singer, specializing in jazz and Brazilian music, and has taught English and composition at Massachusetts community colleges. She writes about musical theater, books, and music for the Arts Fuse.