Sweeney Todd
 music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
 book by Hugh Wheeler
 Stetson University Stover Theatre
 February 2003

Like Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was a collaborative production between Stetson's School of Music and Theatre Arts program.

Sweeney Todd is one of Sondheim darker works, which taps our society's fascination with the macabre. Adapted from a modernized melodrama by Christopher Bond, the play is at its heart a revenge drama infused with music, and is operatic in substance and in scope.

The action of the play is set in nineteenth-century London. Sweeney is a former barber who has been unjustly convicted of a crime and "transported" to a penal colony in Australia in order that the perverse and hypocritical Judge Turpin might have easy access to his beautiful and faithful young wife. The play begins eighteen years later, when Sweeney escapes and returns to London under an assumed identity to claim his wife and family. He is told that his wife took poison after being raped by the Judge, and his daughter Johanna is being raised as the Judge’s ward. As it turns out, the Judge now plans to marry Johanna, ostensibly in order to save her from corruption by young men, but in reality to satisfy his own lecherous desires. When Sweeney fails in his first attempt to kill the Judge, he re-directs his murderous rage onto society as a whole, and is aided by his landlady Mrs. Lovett, whose pie shop finds a new source of meat in Sweeney’s victims. Eventually, the judge is persuaded to return for the play’s powerful and surprising conclusion.

Our production concept sought to highlight our present society’s uneasy fascination with violence and sexual transgression. Presented as a carnival "freak show," the characters in this "gallery of horrors" were painted from a nightmarish palette, and contained more than a touch of Brechtian theatricality. The set was basically a unit set, with the barber shop on the lower level, and the "streets of London" on the wooden scaffolding above. The pie shop and Johanna's room were on platforms extending into the house on each side of the orchestra pit. Stage lights and orchestra musicians were in plain view of the audience. The makeup on the chorus began with unadorned base to suggest the waxy complexion of mannequins at the top of the show; as the play progressed, they gradually received color around the eyes until transformed into lunatics in the end. The chorus also facilitated swift and smooth progression from one scene to the next, often serving as a kind of "human curtain," to reveal actors who had taken places behind them during their transitional narrative verses.

An example of the concept in action was in the staging of the Prologue, which was a departure from the traditional Broadway staging:

The show begins with the actors taking places on the stage in horror poses in shadowy "wax museum" lighting while the orchestra "tunes." A spotlight hits a man dressed as a circus ringleader, in black top hat and tailcoat, with a blazing red ascot and fingerless white gloves. He sits on a stool on the upper level of the set with his back to the audience and plays the "air organ" -- the show's opening number. When the piercing sound of the factory whistle stops the music, he gestures to one of the figures below, who begins to sing the "Ballad of Sweeney Todd." As this soloist arrives at another's position, he takes that person's pose and is followed by the spot as the second also moves through this gallery of horror, singing the second line. Lights blaze as the chorus turns forward to sing, then are returned to the shadowy lighting as the song continues. Sweeney is wheeled in on a small platform, covered by a sheet as if he were the next waxen work of art; on cue, he is "unveiled" with his razor ready as he descends to sing. At the end of the song, Sweeney is led away by a stagehand as if he were a subdued mental patient, as the chorus melts away to transform the stage into the docks of London.

This production was double-cast, with some roles played by different actors on alternating shows. Two Stetson alumni (Wesley Whatley and Robb Ross) and a Music voice coach (Russell Franks) played principal roles in the production.


Review from Ink19.com
Number 32: February, 2003
(page down to the fourth review)

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Copyright © 2003 by Ken McCoy.