Theater Review: Moonbox Productions’ “Sweeney Todd” — An Ambition that Demands Attention
By Martin Copenhaver
Even before the lights come up on the remarkable new production by Moonbox Productions, it is clear that this is a Sweeney Todd of a different order.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Hugh Wheeler. Directed by Ryan Mardesich. Choreography by Joy Clark. Music directed by Dan Ryan. Staged by Moonbox Productions at 2 Arrow Street, Cambridge, through November 5.
When Stephen Sondheim first approached Harold Prince about directing his new musical, Sweeney Todd, Prince was reluctant. What, he wondered, is the appeal of a story about a vengeful barber and his lover, who uses the victims as filling for her meat pies? Besides, the tale, which dates back to a short story published in 1846, had already had numerous dramatic renderings. Does the world really need another one?
Prince eventually signed on to the project after he concluded that the story could be presented as a critique of the dehumanizing effects of the Industrial Revolution and of the resulting class structure. Sondheim had a more fundamental interpretation: “I thought it was about scaring people.”
The two collaborators also had different visions of the scale of the work. Because Prince saw Sweeney as a story concerned with larger societal issues, he argued that it should be presented on an epic scale. By contrast, Sondheim saw Sweeney as more of an ensemble piece with a tighter focus on the individual characters.
In one way or another, every subsequent production of Sweeney Todd has had to wrestle with the differing approaches originally espoused by Sondheim and Prince and, in the best productions, to find ways to combine them. The revival currently on Broadway, like the original production it is based on, boasts an immense set with multiple levels, a large cast, and a full orchestra of 26 musicians — in other words, everything befitting a spectacle. It also employs so much theatrical blood you may wonder if they got it cheap at a close-out sale. It aspires to entertain, rather than to raise social issues.
Even before the lights come up on the remarkable new staging by Moonbox Productions, it is clear that this is a Sweeney of a different order. In advance publicity it was described as “a Brechtian take on a Sondheim classic,” seeking to associate this production with the 20th-century German playwright Bertolt Brecht. Brecht contended that, “Art is not a mirror with which to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” His goals were didactic, using his plays to challenge conventional wisdom and to motivate audiences to seek social justice. Brecht appealed to the intellect, rather than to emotions. Entertainment did not even come into the conversation.
Moonbox’s staging of Sweeney does reflect a Brechtian influence in one key respect — the concern for social justice. Through this production Moonbox is partnering with New England Innocence Project in support of their work to correct and prevent wrongful convictions of crime. It is a most fitting partnership because a key aspect of Sweeney’s story is that he was convicted of a crime he did not commit by a corrupt system. Focusing on that issue — and highlighting how this injustice still prevails today — is certainly a tighter fit with Sweeney’s story than treating it as more general critique of the Industrial Revolution would be.
Nevertheless, gratefully, this production of Sweeney does not evince the influence of Brecht in other respects. It does not have didactic designs on the audience. Its aim is not to teach or advocate. It does not appeal to the intellect alone. This production also gives the lie to the oft-repeated canard that Sondheim’s music and lyrics are detached and devoid of emotion. Here they are anything but.
This Sweeney Todd is the kind of ensemble piece Sondheim envisioned. The size of the venue, as well as the way the open stage does away with the proverbial fourth wall, serves to invite the audience members to imagine their own part in the drama.
The success of any production of Sweeney is particularly dependent on the actors who play Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett. They are the only fully drawn characters and, between the two of them, they sing two-thirds of the songs in the score.
Davron Monroe, as Sweeney, captures well the volcanic anger that roils under the character’s surface at all times and sometimes erupts. Monroe’s stylistic range as a singer is impressive — and necessary for this demanding role. He is able to express the poignancy of a father longing to see his daughter and to levitate with rage when his attempts at vengeance are thwarted.
Joy Clark, who plays the conniving Mrs. Lovett (and who, remarkably, also choreographed the show), brings a sly humor to the role.
For the most part, the rest of the cast members are stronger singers than actors, but that is not much of a deficit in a show where the music’s the thing. When they come together as a chorus, to begin and close the show, and sing, “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” it raises goosebumps as well as the roof.
Although the set is minimalist, Kat Zhou’s lighting design makes up for it in complexity and nuance. The lighting reflects and elicits the various moods of the show — from fury to gloom — and is also used to depict blood or fire.
In keeping with the themes of this production, the orchestra is freed from the pit. Instead, it is situated at the back of the stage. Under the music direction of Dan Ryan, the nine musicians of the orchestra create such a rich and full sound that one wonders why the Broadway production needs over three times that number.
This is the first production staged by Moonbox in its new home, the Arrow Arts Center, which occupies the space familiar to many from the years it housed the A.R.T.’s club theater Oberon. The renovation is not complete, but already it is evident from the re-envisioned spaces that this venue will be an exciting addition to the Cambridge/Boston theater scene. Both the venue and this production of Sweeney Todd declare an ambition that demands attention. Architect Daniel Burnham famously advised, “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir [one’s] blood.” Clearly, Moonbox Productions does not need that advice.
Martin B. Copenhaver, the author of nine books, lives in Cambridge and Woodstock, Vermont.