By CB Adams
Whether you’re a die-hard Muny season ticket holder, a Stephen Sondheim devotee, someone attracted to a dark Dickensian tale about a murderous Victorian barber, someone seeking a great night of musical theater, or anything in between, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is a must-see.
Fresh off the heels (or should we say umbrella) of “Mary Poppins” comes a show with a wholly different cut. It’s populated with hordes of the great unwashed, a steampunk-inspired set, love songs sung to razors and more dead bodies on stage than a Greek tragedy. And if that’s not enough, add in the music and lyrics by Sondheim (one of his greatest showpieces). Who else could have created a toe-tapping sing-along about meat pies made with human flesh?
“Sweeney Todd” originally opened in 1979 and, after sweeping the Tony Awards, has since grown into one of Broadway’s top-ten musicals – emphasis on musical because 80 percent of this show is sung. It is just now making its Muny premiere after a two-year pandemic-induced delay. It is definitely worth the wait.
This a muscular “go big or go home” production. Rob Ruggiero, director, and Mike Isaacson, artistic director and executive producer, leveraged their many talents and definitely chose the go-big option. They take full advantage of the Muny’s automated stage with its performer lifts, turntable and scenery wagons. A tip of the hat also goes to Jessica Hartman, associate director and musical staging, and James Moore, musical director, for their talents.
One of the challenges of “Sweeney Todd” is presenting the violence and carnage, which includes numerous throat slashings. The bloodletting is cleverly and effectively portrayed through lighting (thanks to design by John Lasiter) rather than with fountains of fake blood.
As befits the big production values, this “Sweeney Todd” requires – and delivers – a powerful principal cast. Tony nominee Carmen Cusack, an audience favorite, plays the crafty, ambitious Mrs. Lovett. Cusack’s voice is equal to Ben Davis’s booming Sweeney Todd. Davis achieves a Todd who is complex, wounded and angry, and can still fill the stage with a larger-than-life presence. Julie Hanson’s bawdy Beggar Woman weaves throughout the scenes like an annoying fly with a Cockney accent, while Stephen Wallen’s corpulent The Beadle waddles about like an officious toady in service to Robert Cuccioli’s imperious, love-struck lech, Judge Turpin.
Even a slasher show like “Sweeney Todd” has a love story at its heart. Riley Noland plays Johanna with a thin high voice that befits her role as captive and victim. Her duet with Jake Boyd as sailor boy/love interest Anthony Hope is an extended highlight of this production. Though the two interact mostly from afar, their love and attraction is palpable.
Lincoln Clauss’s Tobias Ragg is a standout. The Ragg character evolves from wig-wearing hawker of snake-oil hair tonic to sprite-like table server and finally to traumatized avenger. Clauss has the acting and vocal range to match.
This production also makes full use of a large ensemble chorus with a panoply of tatty, bedraggled characters who introduce and frame Sweeney Todd’s descent from a cruelly treated barber into a lusty lasher and ultimately tragic victim of his own revengeful scheming. And, there haven’t been this many raised fists on the Muny stage since “Les Misérables” was in town.
The ensemble sings the last chorus at the conclusion of “Sweeney Todd,” but it’s the audience, walking toward the exits and excitedly talking about this production’s wow factor, that gets the last word and best positive review.
The Muny presents “Sweeney Todd” July 16 – 22 at 8:15 p.m. nightly on the outdoor stage in Forest Park. For tickets or more information, visit: www.muny.org.
CB Adams is an award-winning fiction writer and photographer based in the Greater St. Louis area. A former music/arts editor and feature writer for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, his non-fiction has been published in local, regional and national publications. His literary short stories have been published in more than a dozen literary journals and his fine art photography has been exhibited in more than 40 galley shows nationwide. Adams is the recipient of the Missouri Arts Council’s highest writing awards: the Writers’ Biennial and Missouri Writing!. The Riverfront Times named him, “St. Louis’ Most Under-Appreciated Writer” in 1996.