Friday, August 17, 2012
Theater review part deux: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at KD Studio Theatre in Dallas
What they have accomplished is breathtaking, impeccable, unforgettable.
DALLAS Perhaps the most startling aspect of Sweeney Todd is its rigorous moral compass. Considering the premise (pathological barber Todd murders clients subsequently baked into pies by confederate, Mrs. Lovett) it’s positively stunning. Both rapacious in its hunger for justice and possessed of a sardonic worldview blacker than the La Brea Tar Pits, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler) is heart wrenching, tender, horrific, and inexplicably (cathartically) hilarious. When Todd and Lovett describe the propitious, coincidental cannibalism of their pastry business in, “A Little Priest,” you wince even as you giggle. There is, I believe, genius, in Sondheim and Wheeler’s musical that begins with a ridiculously grisly legend, convinces you to sympathize with its protagonist, then deluges him in a downpour of karmic catastrophe.
A young man (Shane Strawbridge) beginning as a barber in London is sent away to prison when his wife becomes the object of desire for a powerful barrister, Judge Turpin (Mark Hawkins). She asks for a private audience to beg for mercy and winds up getting raped at one of Turpin’s orgiastic parties. The barber, adopting the alias “Sweeney Todd,” returns 10 years later, seeking revenge, unsure of the fate of his wife and infant daughter, Johanna. He discovers Johanna (Monica Music). has become Turpin’s obsessively guarded teenage ward, and plots his retaliation with Mrs. Lovett (Andi Allen) and Anthony Hope, a young sailor who saved his life on the voyage home. With the help of a deviously constructed barber’s chair and trap door, his phenomenal grooming skills equip him to send former clients to Mrs. Lovett’s kitchen, where she replaces her hitherto unsuccessful pasties with sumptuous, remarkably popular (yummers!) meat pies. Life is sweet.
It’s not easy to describe how piercingly chilling, yet ruthlessly intelligent and human Sondheim and Wheeler’s spectacle is. Due in no small measure to the vision, savvy and incisive wit of director John de los Santos. It blinds you like an exploding sun. It shakes you till your teeth rattle, then elicits tears when Anthony (Max Swarner) sings to Johanna or Toby (Randall Scott Carpenter) vows to protect Mrs. Lovett in “Not While I’m Around,” surely one of the most touching and effective pieces I’ve ever heard. When you realize the degradation and misery Sweeney’s endured (as sooner or later, we all do) you sense the helplessness he’s felt in the midst of forces beyond his control. You can’t help but share his yearning for some shred of validation. When Mrs. Lovett produces his forgotten razors, epiphany seizes him like a fever. My arm is complete! He shouts ferociously, and we shudder. Because we know exactly what he means.
John de los Santos (and Level Ground Arts Producer Billy Fountain) have brought Sweeney Todd to their stage without mitigation, expurgation, or compromise. How do you manage this kind of menacing, chaotic, maniacal content? One minute a Beggar Woman (Delynda Johnson Moravec) is pleading for alms, the next she’s trying to seduce the same guy, “How’d you like to split me muff?" In one scene Todd is ready to slice Turpin’s throat, in another, they’re singing a wistful duet like, “Pretty Women.” Santos has done phenomenal work with this ambivalent, bizarre, excruciating, yet brilliant musical. You can’t bring off this kind of volatile, perverse, satirical story without a keen understanding of human nature and the delicate chemistry of life-changing theatre. What Santos has accomplished is breathtaking, impeccable, unforgettable. The cast is inspired and implacable, with special props to Allen, Swarner, Moravec, Hawkins, Carpenter, and Shane Strawbridge, who was magnificent.
Level Ground Arts (KD Studio Theatre) presents Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, playing August 10 through September 1, 2012.
Pegasus News Content partner - Christopher Soden, Dallas GLBT Arts Examiner
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