Mysterium Theater in Santa Ana has a history of tackling challenging productions. A small theater, they always seem capable of taking advantage of every inch of space, turning their size into an advantage. Effectively bringing big, technical shows with large casts into such an intimate space is a challenge, but when it’s done, it amplifies every single note and pushes the themes and emotions of the piece directly into your face. It’s a challenge, but Mysterium always seems to succeed.
When you’re staging musicals, you can’t get much more challenging that Stephen Sondheim. Known for his labyrinthine lyrics, Sondheim is popular for his creativity with both actors and audiences. No one writes better songs that both showcase the actors’ talents and advance the story. Actors want to perform Sondheim; patrons want to see Sondheim. But Sondheim is really hard to sing. For an example, check out his classic “Not Getting Married Today,” from his show Company.
While any Sondhiem show is tough to stage, when you combine both musical skill and stagecraft difficulty, his single most challenging show is probably Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Big, in-your-face, and almost entirely musical, Sweeney barely fits in a small theater, but there’s just something incredible about being right there with the murderous barber, lunatics, and scumbags of London. Mysterium pulls it off just right.
Sweeney Todd is everyone’s favorite musical about mass murder and cannibalism, but it really isn’t about that. The driving force of Sweeney Todd is inequality and abuse of power. The show paints the picture of a desperate city, run by corrupt and greasy officials who constantly grind their boots into the backs of the poor and needy, and its real story is one of sticking it to the establishment. It seeks to make everyone uncomfortable. You root for a murderer and hate law enforcement. Like all out-of-the-mainstream ideas, Sweeney turns society on its head and confronts you with your own world seen from a new angle.
While Mysterium’s production doesn’t overtly tackle these themes, the way it pushes the gritty slums of 19th century London into your laps in this small space is enough to force you to feel them. Beggars are just as likely to be in the aisles as on the stage. The show is full of strong voices who relish their little stage and bring the audience to their feet in applause.
Foremost among them is the central couple, William Crisp as the revenge-obsessed barber Sweeney and Dyan Hobday as the Sweeney-obsessed meat pie baker, Mrs. Lovett. Crisp is indeed “crisp” as Sweeney. Dressed in a costume reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe, his strong voice, fueled by simmering anger, carries the show through every hill and valley. From the soft and pensive early scenes of “No Place Like London” to the crazed fury of “Epiphany,” Crisp dominates the stage with the emotion he desires. When he finally cracks into the crushing sadness of the final scene, even that regret comes through realistically and tragically.
Hobday is an absolutely stellar Mrs. Lovett. The role is iconically pinned to Angela Lansbury, and many actresses tend to attempt to re-create the role in her image. Hobday avoids that temptation at all costs. She makes Mrs. Lovett completely her own. This is clear from her high energy opening “Worst Pies in London,” and remains all the way through. Her gorgeous voice nails every nuance of every song, and it is backed up by a divine acting performance that succeeds on all levels. Her performance would be perfectly at home on a professional stage.
Naathan Phan is a fixture at Mysterium, and it’s easy to see why. His unassuming frame hides some wonderful acting and vocal talent, which is a great combination in his role of Tobias. Phan is a born showman, so he shines in his of hawking both snake oil and meat pies, scenes that feature lyrics that many seasoned actors would shy away from. His strong voice and more vulnerable nature are skilfully conveyed later in the tender “Not While I’m Around.” Stan Morrow revels in the garish huckster Adolfo Pirelli, Tobias’ first employer.
As the lovers who throw a wrench into Sweeney’s plans, Adam Bradley Clinton brings a pure voice and a naïve tone to the sailor boy Anthony, which matches nicely with his intended’s full blown innocence. Rachel Charest-Bertram’s Johanna brings truth to the lonely girl’s sweetness, and it is powered by her amazing soprano voice.
The nefarious partnership of Beadle and Judge mostly succeeds. Luis Enrique Cejas is a bit young for the Beadle, and that can disturb the show’s plot, for the Beadle is supposed to have been at his post for at least 15 years. Still, Cejas is very effective as the greasy, corrupt officer. The same is true of Tom Royer’s evil Judge Turpin, although it would be nice to see a greater contrast between the Judge’s outward piety and inward nastiness. This duality is a central theme to the show, embodied by its antagonist, and a little stronger dose of it would have been helpful.
The mysterious Beggar Woman is a tough character. Ever-present, she seems to act as Sweeney’s conscience. No one, including the audience, really knows why she’s there until the end, so it can be easy to misunderstand much of her action. Kaitlyn Tice walks this line admirably, seeming to enjoy the mystery she is creating, especially when she brings her cries for “alms” into the audience.
Sweeney Todd has one of the most important ensembles of any musical. The ensemble is its own character, portraying the citizens of London, contributing to the tone, and performing vital storytelling duties. The ensemble fills the role of the classic Greek Chorus, filling in gaps in the story and supplementing the hero’s obsession with the voice of mad, gritty reason. This chorus fits the challenge.
Owner/director Marla Ladd rises to the challenge of fitting this large, intense musical onto her small stage. She uses every nook and cranny of Eugene McDonald’s creative set. Sweeney requires at least two levels of set design, and McDonald is able to deliver four, making some of the storytelling sequences clearer and the ensemble sections easier.
Sweeney Todd was a classic long before Johnny Depp brought it to the screen. It has stood the test of time because audiences get beyond the blood and guts and find some form of visceral truth to its portrayal of inequality of wealth and torturous abuse of power. After the recent Kelly Thomas verdict, it’s clear that these themes have not gone away. Even in a different country and a different time, the “rosy skin of righteousness” still seems to have a few blemishes.
- Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street
- Mysterium Theater
- 19211 Dodge Avenue
- Santa Ana, CA
- (714) 505-3454
- January 16, 17, 18, 23, 24, 25; February 1, 2, 6, 7, 8 at 8:01 p.m.
- January 12, 19, 26; February 2 at 7:01 p.m.
- January 18, 19, 21, 26; February 1, 2, 8 at 4:01 p.m.