Scarlet Billows – a review of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”

By Michael “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant

When Benjamin Barker – now using the non de guerre Sweeney Todd (Andrew Cummings) – returns to London, his mournful cries of retribution and revenge fill the streets in Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” Based on the Victorian Penny Dreadful, “String of Pearls” from 1847-48, “Sweeney Todd” is a reimagining of the tale. It is a story of a vicious killer told – not in murky gothic tones – but with light comic touches. It is a wickedly, dark comedy with a haunting romantic heart beating at its center.

There are no spoilers here, since the tale is told in the opening number, “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.”

After being exiled on trumped-up charges, Todd returns to England with Anthony Hope (Adam Hollick) in tow. The shipmates separate but their lives are inexplicably tied together by fate.

Todd plans his revenge on the men who destroyed his marriage, the villainous Judge Turpin (Adam Cioffari) and his sycophantic lackey, Beadle Bamford (Robert Frankenberry). Fate brings Todd to Mrs. Lovett (the aptly named Anna Singer), purveyor of putrid pies – made from lesser quality meat (Hello, Kitty).

Lovett offers him a place to dwell. She tells a lurid tale of the barber who used to live there. A man named Barker who lived there with his wife Lucy (Lesley Baird) and their baby Johanna until Judge Turpin tore their happy home to shreds with his lust for Lucy. The contemptable Judge sent Barker off to a penal colony on the other side of the world and ravaged Barker’s beautiful wife. When Lucy went mad, Turpin took the child as his ward. Lovett retells the tale to Todd, all the while knowing that Barker and Todd are one in the same.

The full cast of the Pittsburgh Festival Opera of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” Photo by Patti Brahim

Meanwhile, the handsome sailor, Anthony, spies the fully-grown Johanna (April Amante) on her balcony, and falls madly in love with her. But as the bard would muse, “The course of true love ne’er did run smooth.” The vile Judge decides that his ward, whom he raised as a daughter, should now be his wife (Someone get Jerry Springer on the phone…stat!).

Back at his barber shop on Fleet Street, Todd begins dispatching his clients with his straight razor. As the aforementioned ballad goes, “Sweeney Todd kept a shop in London Town, of fancy clients of good renown, and what if none of their souls were saved? They went to their maker impeccably shaved.”

Mrs. Lovett decides she wants a piece of the action, and begins grinding the victims into meat for her pies. The idea comes forth in a dark, delightful ditty, “A Little Priest,” where the duo sing about the former occupations of the once and future pies. Business in the pie shop is booming, and Lovett hires Toby Ragg (John Teresi) to scuttle about, aiding her in the restaurant.

Where will the loathsome tale end? If you guessed in “blood and gore,” you’ve won the big money prize! Luckily, director Tome Cousin handles the carnage artfully. When Todd slices a throat, scarlet billows forth from the victims neck like an explosion of rose petals. It is beautiful and macabre.

Cummings does an incredible job as the demon barber, and Singer is a joy to watch and listen to on the stage. They do wonderful work together, with devilish chemistry.

Hollick is a dashing romantic lead with powerful voice. The audience has no problem rooting for the hero named Hope.

Frankenberry is a charismatic villain. Picture Jonathan Pryce in “Adventures of Baron Munchausen” or in any of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, mix in a little bit of Robert Helpmann’s Child Catcher from “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and add a mellifluous voice.

He is a slick villain, slicker than Turpin. Though the Judge is sinister and creepy. Even though his actions will make you squirm, Cioffari humanizes Turpin with a modicum of sympathy. The Judge knows he’s evil and he can’t help himself, and it makes him a terrific baddie.

Special attention should be made to Teresi. The petite blond man – who plays a child of indeterminate age –  has a potent voice.

Hank Bullington’s set is saturated in dark blues and deep purples. Scene changes are deceptively simple affairs; a grouping of chairs are reordered and the names of the shops and restaurants are projected on the walls.

Kudos to costume designer Rachel Wyatt for time-traveling back to Victorian London for the wardrobe.

The two hour and twenty minute run time breezes by.

“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is a must-see for any Sondheim fans in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” runs a series of dates through July 22 at the Falk Auditorium in the Winchester Thurston School, 555 Morewood Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213. For more information, click here.

– MB

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