“Sweeney Todd” at CMH Gets into Your Head, Scares You Silly and Breaks Your Heart
Playhouse Stage Company has staged a thrilling, immersive, disturbing “Sweeney Todd” with Cohoes Music Hall proudly stepping up and taking part as a character in the show. Owen Smith, the Artistic Director of Park Playhouse has taken the directorial reins of PSC’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s glorious 1979 musical “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” and done a masterful job.
This musical shows up frequently in the Capital Region. Two of Us Productions had a run of it last month, RPI did a fine job this past April, this is the second time I’ve seen the indispensable Molly Rose McGrath as Mrs. Lovett but I have never seen a production with more moments of inventive staging or more importantly the power to shock, unsettle you and feel the blind rage for justice that the title character is consumed with.
The cast is small but mighty. I did not see the recent Barrow Street production off-Broadway which had a cast of 12 and was set inside a pie shop. There are only nine performers in this production but they are omnipresent, powerful as hell and by the final refrain you will feel overwhelmed by this company’s ability to communicate directly into your eyes and share their unhinged obsessions.
“Sweeney Todd” is based on a character from a series of penny dreadfuls (serialized horror magazines in London) from 1846-47. Before the story was even finished in print, there was a play onstage featuring the character and by the 1870’s most Victorians would be familiar with the barber and his tale of terror. In 1973 Christopher Bond did an adaptation for the stage and added psychological elements which Sondheim saw at Theatre Royal Stratford East and based his musical on. The book is by Hugh Wheeler.
The musical opens with Sweeney (Jason Jacoby) returning to London after serving a sentence for 15 years in the penal colony of Australia in the company of a young sailor Anthony (Luis Hererra) who has saved his life from a tempest tossed raft. On the streets they are accosted by a beggar woman (Melissa Cook). Todd has been transported on false charges by an evil Judge Turpin (Samuel Druhora) and his muscle Beadle Bamford (Christopher Frazier). The judge in Todd’s absence rapes his wife, steals his daughter (Cara Quigly) and raises her as his own with nefarious motives. Todd finds himself back at his old digs on Fleet Street which has a new downstairs tenant, Mrs. Lovett (Molly Rose McGrath) who has a shop for meat pies on the ground floor underneath the barber’s old office. She guesses his past identity as the barber Benjamin Barker by his reaction to the story about the former tenants and proposes he set up business again, offering him his razors he has left behind. By the end of the first act they have worked out a mutually beneficial relationship where the victims of his tonsorial ministrations end up in her meat pies.
There are music hall recordings playing when you enter the space with three long communal tables set up on the floor facing the stage. There are no pies or mash being served but you can bring your drinks and popcorn upstairs. Please keep the center of the tables free and clear for some amazing, seemingly impromptu performances that will happen inches from where you sit. Owen welcomes you to the second full year-round season of Playhouse Stage Company in his curtain speech and the next thing you will hear are machines clanking as if klieg lights shutting down and the house drops into darkness. Behind you in the far corner of the right side of the house the cast descends from behind you and you are primed to “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.” Owen’s familiarity and use of the house is phenomenal (greatly assisted by a fantastic lighting design by Mike Hanrahan and scenic design by Timothy Clow) from scenes set in the lower boxes, characters moving constantly and despite their small size enveloping you like a city and especially Jason Jacoby’s stroll through the dining table seating while singing the lovely “Johanna” and dispatching victims. This version (it shows up in the musical three times) of “Johanna” involves the namesake, her beloved Anthony, the Beggarwoman from the first scene and Mrs. Lovett all singing alongside Sweeney. It is a one-act play on its own and worth the price of admission.
My only quibble with the space and the setting is the final scene set upstage behind a witty Safety Curtain scrim. I’ve always felt there’s a huge amount of action going on in that scene and in a setting that hasn’t been used in the play up until then. Extremely difficult to stage satisfactorily and frankly, I can’t recall a great one.
Jason Jacoby begins the play in the most reasonable manner and slowly, step by stutter step (literally when he receives his razors) he leads you down in his descent to madness enveloping him. His manner is direct and confidential. You could easily climb into his chair and offer yourself vulnerably to his shaves never questioning his manner…until it’s too late. Powerfully sung, thoroughly physically embodied (watch that step) and best of all, electrically alive with his scene partners-Mrs. Lovett, Anthony, the Judge, everyone including the audience. Outstanding performance!
Molly Rose McGrath has never been better. She is radiantly beautiful and her eyes gleam with mischief (or is it madness?) and the prospect of the fun to be had. She opens her shop on top of musical director Brian Axford’s piano with “The Worst Pies in London” and provides much of the humor throughout the night. You can feel quite uneasy though with her zeal to “serve anyone” and her attachment to fantasy with “By the Sea” beautifully played together with Jacoby.
I was deeply impressed with Luis Hererra’s Anthony who was so good as Sonny in this past summer’s “In the Heights.” His scenes with Jacoby are very strong and he brings an almost bursting energy to the role. His duet with Cara Quigley’s Johanna on “Kiss Me” was especially powerful. Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford had a great stroll scene with “Ladies in their Sensitivities.” Druhora’s duet with Jacoby on “Pretty Women” was lovely and his self-flagellation on his version of “Johanna” was off-putting to say the least. He quickly grabbed the whip when interrupted. Christopher Frazier made direct eye contact with me, inviting me to join the shaving competition with Pirelli (Melissa Cook). He makes Bamford a terrific presence-voice, character and authority. I loved Brandon Jones’ Tobias and his version of “Not While I’m Around” will live with me for a very long time. Cara Quigley is lovely and can sing her face off when necessary as in “Kiss Me.” Melissa Cook in the dual role as Beggar Woman and Pirelli excels in presenting the poor woman’s pleas all night long and infuses “City on Fire” with a burning urgency. Tom McGrath plays Mr. Fogg and sets the scenes throughout the evening. I am excited and indebted to the entire cast’s performance which made this long, very familiar show fly by with dazzling energy and candor.
Beadle Bamford and Mrs. Lovett used Axford as a foil and joined him at the piano to sing music-hall style which really tied the venue into the theme of the piece. The cast seemed to be ghosts from the Music Hall and were appropriately costumed by Ashley-Simone Kirchner. The make-up on only a few was too much for me. The four-piece band was superb and the amplification (occasionally employing echo effects, design by Chuck Kraus) was crystalline. This show is nearly sung through and the band and the staging constantly dovetail one song and scene onto the other so that there is no break for applause throughout the show. Very impressive.
“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler is about the haves and the have-nots. It’s about the perversion of justice and societal norms to the point where citizens consume themselves and each other when civilization’s constructs fail them. It is an entertainment that will fire your conscience, heart and imagination. A towering achievement in the American musical theater canon. If you have never seen it onstage, now is an optimum time to catch it and this is a superb production of it.
An extraordinary cast, inventive and creative staging in a Capital Region landmark treasure on “Sweeney Todd,” a show with forceful themes makes Playhouse Stage Company’s production of this 20th century American musical theater classic a must-see. Don’t miss it!