If you are looking for diversity in your summer entertainment, The Music Circus is certainly the place to find it this year. How can there be two more different musicals than the season’s opening “Sound of Music” and this week’s “Sweeney Todd,” Stephen Sondheim’s dark story of revenge and murder.
It’s a first for Music Circus, which has never presented “Sweeney Todd” before. But it was apparent from the start that they have made up for lost time with an outstanding production, directed by Glenn Casale.
This is the story of a 19th century London barber, Benjamin Barker, who is married to his beloved Lucy and the father of their baby Johanna. However, the villainous Judge Turpin has his eye on the lovely Lucy and so sends Barker to the penal colony at Botany Bay in Australia on some trumped up charge so that he can have Lucy all to himself.
Many years later, Barker escapes and manages to get back to London, where, under the name Sweeney Todd he begins his plan to get revenge on the people who destroyed his life.
Tony award nominee Mark Jacoby is magnificent as Todd, a broken man filled with rage for the wife he thinks is dead and determined to revenge those who drove her to commit suicide.
He rents his old apartment, over the pie shop of Mrs. Lovett (Tony Award nominee Mary Gordon Murray) who, by her own admission, bakes “the worst pies in London.” His plan is to lure Judge Turpin (Michael G. Hawkins) and his Beadle (Roland Rusinek) to his barber shop and slit their throats.
But things don’t go quite as planned at first and the Judge slips through his fingers. Todd’s anguish at losing him is acute as he sings his “Epiphany,” where he revises his plan, “I will get him back even as he gloats / In the meantime I'll practice on dishonorable throats.”
Sondheim’s brilliance in the creation of the character of Sweeney Todd is that, as menacing as he is, as heinous as his killing spree is, those who surround him are so much more evil that we feel empathy with Sweeney, we care about him, and we hope for his success in avenging the terrible things that were done to him.
The affable Mrs. Lovett, never one to let opportunity pass her by, hates to see all that good “meat” go to waste as Todd begins his killing spree (“Seems an awful waste... / I mean, with the price of meat / What it is, / When you get it, / If you get it...”) and so they work together to improve the quality of her pies, which soon become the talk of London.
Their duet, “A Little Priest” is one wonderfully macabre moment of lightness in an otherwise very dark musical.
Murray is delightfully coquettish as Mrs. Lovett, enjoying her newfound success as a pie baker, and attempting to woo Todd and move him out of London.
A side story revolves around the young sailor, Anthony Hope (Max Von Essen), who rescued Todd at sea and who, coincidentally, has found Todd’s daughter, living as the ward of Turbin, and fallen in love with her. Anthony and Johanna (Carolann M. Sanita) remain symbols of goodness in an evil world which swirls around them.
Also important to the plot is the beggar woman (Heather Lee) who seems to be the only one aware that terrible things are happening in the pie shop, but her mind is so far gone, nobody will believe her.
Outstanding in the minor role of Tobias Ragg, a simple young man who is devoted to Mrs. Lovett, is August Emerson, whose final scene is one of the most poignant in the play.
The ensemble fill a variety of small roles (almost all of the men's throats become targets of Sweeney's razor) and also to function as the Greek chorus Sondheim has employed to chilling effect, giving deadpan delivery to “telling the tale of Sweeney Todd.”
Scenic Designer Evan Bartoletti has made maximum use of the Wells Fargo Pavilion, turning the entire theater into a section of London. The set-up for Sweeney’s infamous barber chair is ingenious.
It is good to see Music Circus taking a chance on meatier (pun intended) fare than the usual frothy musicals. Judging from the audience reaction, it was a good decision.