Sweeney Todd is a comment on chaos: humanity’s attempts at taming it and its inevitable reestablishment. It’s a hard thing to get down on paper, and it’s harder still to produce an entire production based on it. The Arts Undergraduate Theatre Society (AUTS) should certainly be commended for their collective courage in embarking on such an ambitious endeavor, filled with equally demanding roles.
Directed by Phae Nowak and produced by Andrew Poile, Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street recounts a humble barber’s return to London after an exile to Australia for a crime he never committed. Understandably, he’s obsessed with getting revenge against the man who sentenced him, Judge Turpin (Mike Sornberger).
Sweeney Todd (Benjamin Harris) reveals himself to the audience as a broken soul, one beaten by the fist of a corrupt society. Harris works the stage well, filling it with an impressive tenor in “No Place Like London.” Nowak’s minimalist – or technically, Brechtian – approach, stripping the set of superfluous elements, puts the actors front and center, and the show – and ultimately the students – benefit from it. He meets Mrs. Lovett, played by the charming Zara Jestadt, the soon-to-be demon pie maker of Fleet Street, and begins his new life bent around fulfilling his most fervent desire. On the way, the duo picks up a boy, Toby, (Brendan Edge) who, while endearing, did have an unfortunate habit of fumbling his words.
It’s curious that the production’s conviction comes across most strongly when Todd gains his in the middle of “A Little Priest.” All of a sudden, all of the production elements that previously felt somewhat disjointed come together in a heart-racing mille-feuille of madness. The singing takes on the world-weariness that the characters embody and the music begins to rivet your attention to the madness that is about to unfold. You’re left a bit uncomfortable at its intensity, and Nowak likes it that way. Beautiful things often have something strange about them, or in this case, something terrifying.
All that notwithstanding, there’s no shortage of genuine talent here, whether one looks up at the stage or down into the pit. Jestadt initially comes across a bit too light-footed, but gains her gravitas in ample amounts by the second act. Niko Gelfars as Anthony is perfectly cast, the image of earnestness, with the shrill voice of young love to boot. Maddie Lawrance-Thorne as the beggar woman plays her part spectacularly, all the while looking like a bedraggled Lily Cole. Down in the pit, Sean Mayes must be credited with conducting the fabulous Barber Shop Players, and giving the production a roaring cacophony.
There’s a moment that particularly stands out as everything that Sweeney Todd got right: a Phantom of the Opera moment with a single white spotlight shining over the audience. Simple, striking, effective.
Admittedly, I never saw Sweeney Todd on stage before, but I did see the film adaptation with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. Pleasantly enough, the live performance lived up to the production value of the Oscar-winning film, or at least didn’t pale in comparison, and left a definite impression upon the audience. Chaos comes to a head and as is the way of the world, chaos reasserts itself; it just never looked as good as this.