Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Sondheim's phenomenal score and Hugh Wheeler's excellent book are a perfect combination of dark wit, intricate rhyme schemes, and succinct dialogue with scenes and songs that flesh out the characters' thoughts and feelings while furthering the plot. There aren't any unnecessary songs or moments, which keeps the audience actively engaged throughout.
Set in 19th century London, the plot follows the story of Benjamin Barker, a barber who was unjustly exiled and who, renamed as Sweeney Todd, seeks revenge against Judge Turpin, the man who falsely imprisoned him with plans to steal his young wife Lucy and their infant child Johanna. Upon his return to London after fifteen years, Todd discovers that Turpin now has plans to marry the grown-up Johanna and that Lucy was driven to suicide and took poison. With the assistance of Mrs. Lovett, the woman who runs the seedy meat pie shop under the room where he used to live, Todd's thirst for blood grows and soon he and Lovett are finding a most creative, and profitable, way to dispose of the bodies whose throats Todd has slit in his barber chair as he awaits his justice against Turpin.
Sondheim's score is incredibly powerful, with overlapping sequences and fast-paced lyrics, which can be a challenge even for professional theatre companies. Because of that, it's understandable that this younger cast may display some difficulties with the material. However, the majority of the cast do a fantastic job maneuvering their way through the score, with only a few brief times when there are errant notes or high notes that aren't held as long as they should be, delayed lyrics, or under-projected lyrics or dialogue. It's really impressive how well Greaspaint's cast does with one of Sondheim's most difficult scores.
Trevon Powell's direction is very good and derives clear portrayals from each member of the cast. Powell's staging makes good use of the large Greasepaint stage as well as the side aprons and side aisles to stage some of the scenes while set changes are happening on the main stage space. Musical director Mary Ellen Loose achieves warm, rich notes from the cast, with only a few missed notes or errors in phrasing, and while prerecorded tracks are used, they are some of the best I've heard. Also, for any Sweeney Todd purist, this production includes both the tooth-pulling sequence when Todd meets Pirelli as well as Judge Turpin's solo of "Johanna"–both of which were cut shortly after the original Broadway production opened and which most of the dozen or so productions of the show I've seen have also eliminated.
The leads are all very impressive. As Sweeney, Noah Sucado evokes brooding and obsession very well, with facial expressions that make him appear to be always deep in thought and calculating his next step on how to seek vengeance. Sucado's beautiful singing voice shines on his many songs; his "Epiphany," which is infused with anger, fury and menace, is fantastic. There is a moment toward the end of the show when Sweeney becomes aware of something and in that moment Sucado's reaction is so believable that it makes you feel for the character and truly understand exactly why Todd is doing the things he does.
Nora Palermo is one of the best Mrs. Lovetts I've seen, and I've seen a lot. She has an impressive understanding of Lovett and brings out dimensions and layers of her that I've never noticed before–that's how good she is. Her singing voice and excellent and continuous accent are perfect. Sucado and Palermo create a calculating couple who know how to work well together, and neither make any false moves in bringing these beloved musical characters vibrantly to life. Their performance of "A Little Priest" is the highlight of the show. It's exceptionally sung and well acted, bringing out the continual black humor in Sondheim's lyrics.
As Johanna and Anthony, the young sailor who falls in love with her, Katie Stone and Bennett Smith have lovely singing voices and sweet and charming dispositions. They create a couple you want to see succeed. With a rich voice, Sydney Vance is great as the half-crazed Beggar Woman who seems to always be lurking. Nathan Sullivan and Eli Franklin are perfectly evil as Judge Turpin and his assistant, Beadle. Olivia Feldman has a nice turn as a gender-bending Pirelli, a barber Todd has a run in with, and 9-year-old Lucas Moran is great as Toby; his delivery of "Not While I'm Around" is perfect, as is his chilling and dramatic performance in the final moments of the show. The large ensemble cast are all very good in creating numerous characters and delivering the many reprises of "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd."
The set design by Chase Budden and Peter Bish is quite impressive, with a large movable piece that represents Sweeney's barbershop and Lovett's pie shop, and some smaller pieces that supplement and flesh out the designs. The barber chair for Todd, which has some surprises of its own, is excellent. The costumes by Diana Likes are wonderful, with rich fabrics and patterns. The more elaborate Act Two costumes for Todd and Lovett that show how they've come into some money, are wonderful, and the outfit for Pirelli is phenomenal. Mickey Courtney's props are great in how they are additive to the action and period appropriate. Dale Nakagawa's lighting is rich and evocative, with shadows and deep, dark reds used appropriately to ratchet up the horror. While there were a few moments at the performance I attended when some of the cast could have projected more to be better heard, the majority of the dialogue and songs were clear and crisp under Pete Bish's sound design.
Sweeney Todd may be ghoulish and ghastly at times but it is also a musical that focuses on themes of injustice and human suffering that help justify the main character's actions. It also has an incredible score and an excellent book as well as an abundance of dark humor. A superb cast like Greasepaint's shows how a sophisticated and challenging musical can result in a rich and rewarding experience as well as a deliciously macabre musical treat.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street runs through May 14, 2023, at Greasepaint Youth Theatre, 7020 E. 2nd Street, Scottsdale AZ. For tickets and information, please call 480-949-7529 or visit www.greasepaint.org.
Directed by Trevon Powell