Theater Review: SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET (A Noise Within in Pasadena)

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by Nick McCall on March 1, 2024

in Theater-Los Angeles


When A Noise Within, one of LA’s best companies, which specializes in classical theater, announced its current season, what most excited me by far was their decision to do Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street by composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim and book writer Hugh Wheeler. Being able to see actors who specialize in the likes of Shakespeare and Wilde promised to be nothing less than thrilling. Currently running in Pasadena, it doesn’t disappoint.

The Ensemble

In nineteenth century London, Benjamin Barker, now Sweeney Todd, an unjustly exiled barber, returns home after fifteen years imprisoned in a penal colony. He seeks vengeance against the lecherous judge and his spineless beadle who framed him. Helped in his escape by a virtuous but naive sailor, Anthony Hope, Sweeney plans to reunite with his wife Lucy and daughter Johanna. However, he soon reunites with Mrs. Lovett, whose failing pie shop is in the building where his barbershop used to be. She tells Sweeney that the judge raped Lucy, who consequently took her own life, and took Johanna in as his ward.

Cassandra Marie Murphy and Geoff Elliott

Sweeney’s road to revenge leads him to re-open his barbershop in its old location where he attempts to kill the judge. His attack fails and he goes mad, vowing revenge on not only the judge but all mankind. Mrs. Lovett, enamored with Sweeney, comes up with an idea to help dispose of the bodies by baking them into her meat pies. Her business starts to boom, but Sweeney’s thirst for blood and her inability to keep up with the demand lead to heartbreak, blackmail, and carnage beyond their comprehension.

The Ensemble

The show starts in an empty, old, derelict theater, the remnant of a torn stage curtain still hanging behind the proscenium. The players, in full Victorian costume, gather to sit in two rows of theater seats and sing the prologue. We see the rear wall of the stage where the beggars of London occasionally lurk in the shadows, like the ghosts in Follies. Scenery is kept to a minimum, mostly ladders rolled around and single pieces of furniture when necessary. There was something modern about it all, but I couldn’t quite figure out the concept, so I dismissed it as generic period ambience. It turns out, from later reading the press material, that it’s modern-day homeless and mentally-ill Angelenos performing Sweeney Todd. While I didn’t get that, and even though it took the “grand” out of Grand Guignol, I thoroughly enjoyed this production. It makes me regret skipping A Noise Within’s other major forays into musicals and I hope to see them do more.

The Ensemble

Now, a preliminary for you Sweeney Todd aficionados. Uncut productions are unusual, and this version has many cuts. No second half of “The Contest” — the tooth-pulling — or “Mea Culpa” here, which is no surprise as the frightening song has the judge self-flagellating while ejaculating. But a bird-killing is out and there’s no liquid blood spurting from necks, making this a much gentler production than normal. Also gone is Sweeney’s full fancy chair that deposits victims down below into a bakehouse where they are made into meat pies (“God, That’s Good!” is missing the “pound three times” segement). John Doyle’s riveting production at the Ahmanson in 2008 also took out the chair. Is Sweeney’s death-chair going to become as rare as Lohengrin’s oft-removed swan? I want to see Sweeney’s victims go down the hole!

The Ensemble

Still, with sudden shocks of red lighting on a giant white hair-cutting cape, the chair works great. Indeed, director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott has wonderful flourishes throughout: Sweeney’s sad reunion with a perambulator; Pirelli’s drawn-out death; and the “Poor Thing” pantomime with the cast in frightening animal masks — and which Rodriguez-Elliott also choreographed — to mention a few.

Joanna J. Jones, Amber Liekhus. and Cassandra Marie Murphy

There were other scattered little cuts, such as much of the “Parlor Songs” sequence, but they were seamless. Besides, this version was too involving to play spot-the-cut, and at well-over two-and-a-half hours, it really flew. Still, I’m not convinced that less of Sweeney Todd is a necessary thing.

Joanna J. Jones and James Everts

Instead of an orchestra, we get a three-piece ensemble: two pianos and a cello, our first hint at director Rodriguez-Elliott’s understated and minimal approach that eschews extreme emotions. This becomes fully apparent during the first scene with the Beggar Woman (Amber Liekhus). Whereas other actresses lean into the grotesque mix of humor, sex, and shock of “how would ya like to split me muff,” Liekhus played it straight, rushing through the words as if this sales pitch had become rote. With the crack of a songbird’s neck missing, the characters of Judge Turpin (Jeremy Rabb) and Beadle Bamford (Harrison White) are considerable softened — their sinister and violent natures aren’t acutely portrayed.

Cassandra Marie Murphy, Geoff Elliott

Geoff Elliott played Sweeney with extreme restraint, as if the years of anger and plotting killed the inside of him. His interpretation made Sweeney practically an introvert, someone who kept all his emotions bottled up and carefully controlled when released. Not even for “Epiphany” did he go into histrionics. It was an interesting performance, especially in his final scene with Mrs. Lovett, when a new rage lit a fire in his eyes for the first time in the show and he became truly frightening. Rabb’s Turpin was another understated take on being dead inside. It was interesting, though he merely made me feel icky instead of filling me with dread.

Josey Montana McCoy, Cassandra Marie Murphy and The Ensemble

Cassandra Marie Murphy played Mrs. Lovett with youthful vigor and a touch of horniness. Her take on “The Worst Pies in London” was too fast for clarity, but the rest of the songs were just right and showed off her beautiful voice. Like Elliott, Murphy did not milk Mrs. Lovett. Her Lovett was soft, yet had a touch of sinisterness, not cartoonishly deranged or off-kilter. Murphy and Elliott’s chemistry was enthralling for “A Little Priest.” It amazes me how different actors can mine fresh comedy from this song, no matter how well I know it.

Joanna J. Jones, James Everts, Harrison White

Other standouts in the cast include James Everts, whose interpretation of Anthony was light, lovely, and felt effortless. Kasey Mahaffy wowed as the deliciously scene-chewing Pirelli (the cut of Pirelli’s intro and his tooth-pulling aria were sorely missed because Mahaffy was a knockout). Josey Montana McCoy played Tobias, a simpleton taken in by Mrs. Lovett, and made compelling “Not While I’m Around,” a song I usually skip when casually listening to recordings. Soprano Joanna A. Jones played the somewhat nutty, bird-loving Johanna with a fluttery vibrato and diction so good that I could make out every word. A wonderful bit of casting, Jones’s Johanna looked like she could have plausibly been the biological daughter of this production’s Sweeney and Lucy. Sondheim’s text was also altered to fit her dark features (such as “raven hair” instead of “yellow hair”), a change that I adored. This is how to do race-inclusive casting for older works.

Cassandra Marie Murphy, cellist Karen Hall, and Harrison White

Music director Rod Bagheri on piano led the capable three-piece ensemble, which includes Christopher Smith (piano) and Karen Hall (cello). There were times when I didn’t even miss the larger (dare I say, “properly-sized?”) orchestra, but there are times when the score calls for some bombast, and they just couldn’t fulfill that place. For “A Little Priest,” always a high point, Bagheri with piano was rolled out to play directly next to Elliot and Murphy, which was delightful, as if we were in an old Music Hall. Similar to the musicians, the chorus was softened when a bellow was called for, but the singers were very good overall, sometimes breathtaking.

The production was amplified with ugly face microphones. I think mics need to be hidden (as does the cello’s blinking LED). After the show, my friend said that he kept thinking the mics were warts. In spite of this, Jeff Gardner’s sound was, no pun intended, tasteful.

The Ensemble

The impressive set by François-Pierre Couture was vast and included a huge false rear wall. Angela Balogh Calin’s costumes were intricate and colorful, with Mrs. Lovett’s “God, That’s Good!” dress particularly extravagant. Tony Valdes did wigs and makeup, giving the cast a sickly look and Mrs. Lovett a fondness for wigs, a gag that was introduced too late in the show. (I wondered why she had new hair in “By the Sea”). Dialect coach Andrea Odinov kept the cast cohesively sounding like Londoners, something we don’t always get with this show. Ken Booth’s lighting was outstanding, reaching beautiful heights during “Johanna,” which rapidly alternated between Johanna, high up on a ladder, her shadow and warm light raking the textured back wall while Sweeney murders and Anthony pines for Johanna.

Sondheim and Wheeler, using Christopher Bond’s 1970 play, which itself was adapted from the wildly popular mid-Victorian “penny dreadfuls” published in London by Edward Lloyd, created one of the most masterful musicals ever written. But it is Sondheim’s superb craftsmanship that fashions this tale into musical history. A Noise Within’s production is done on a scale rarely seen, yet retains all of the power of this magnificent score. I dare you not to see it more than once.

photos by Craig Schwartz

Sweeney Todd
A Noise Within
3352 E Foothill Blvd in Pasadena
previews Feb. 11 – Feb. 16, 2024performances Feb. 17 – March 17, 2024
for tickets, call 626.356.3100 visit A Noise Within

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