Mythology is not confined to the ancients. Societies are constantly developing new folklore from bits and pieces of history, rumor, and belief with a dash of morality peppered in. Those stories become folklore, which gets reiterated through the arts. Stories, paintings, songs, and other art forms both perpetuate and transform the tales until they settle in on a narrative sweet spot, one that speaks to the heart of listeners while also teaching a moral truth. The myth becomes just fictional enough to be palatable and just plausible enough to be enjoyable.
That’s what happened with the British legend of Sweeney Todd, the murderous 19th century barber who slit the throat of his victims, then sent them down into his landlady’s meat pie shop to be transformed into a delicious treat for the masses. Various tales of cannibalism in Britain reached back at least to the 17th century. Over time, they evolved and ultimately were worked into an 1847 Penny Dreadful novel, The String of Pearls: A Romance.
From there, Sweeney’s tale morphed into a popular melodrama, at least six film versions, numerous stage plays, and most famously into the Stephen Sondheim musical thriller, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Perhaps because this version combines Sondheim’s dark and powerful score, perfect characterizations, a bit of humor, and a large dose of taboo, it has become the standard iteration of this piece of English folklore. Last night, a compelling staging of this classic thriller opened at the Curtis Theatre in Brea, and it remains just as powerful as the first time anyone ever watched Sweeney’s razor float across its first throat.
Directed by Stephen John, this production is filled with talent. Rudy Martinez employs a rich, deep baritone expertly as the “demonic” barber. Beyond his voice, though, Martinez avoids the slightly wild-eyed characterization of this serial murderer that is so common. Martinez’s Sweeney is precise, focused, and grounded in an inner strength that makes his character all that more chilling. In the pivotal role of Mrs. Lovett, Laura Gregory also brings a more robust and self-assured demeanor mixed in with perfectly-delivered dry humor. This is a bawdy and vocally solid Mrs. Lovett that breaks the mold of the cooky, grandmotherly character that developed early in the musical’s history.
Phil Nieto is appropriately disturbing and intimidating as the evil Judge Turpin, particularly in self-flagellating solo, “Johanna.” This sequence is often seen as too dark even for this show, and its impact commonly blunted by placing the judge in darker light or facing him away from the audience. Not this time. Nieto’s large, powerful body faces directly at us, and we get a disturbing look into the mind and heart of our amoral villain as he prays for deliverance. In contrast, Ryan Coon is positively jovial as Turpin’s sidekick, Beadle Bamford. Coon also contributes a gorgeous tenor to multiple harmonies throughout the show. In another antagonistic role, David A. Blair is also effective as Sweeney’s street-hustling competition, Adolfo Pirelli, while also bringing a gorgeous voice to the ongoing ballad that drives the show.
Within the murder and darkness of Sweeney, you need to have a ray of light. Aaron Stephens and Carolyn Lupin provide this as the young lovers, Anthony and Johanna. Both exude innocence and hope for the future, which becomes more and more necessary as the play progresses. In particular, Lupin’s crystal soprano sings of youth and desire for freedom.
Their youthful hope, however, is effectively counteracted by Katrina Murphy’s mysterious Beggar Woman. Murphy comes off as the loss of that youthful innocence, with a similar soprano voice and her long, dirty blonde hair. Her Beggar Woman seems more than physically desperate; she is mentally unsound, making the conclusion of her sad story even more tragic. In a similar story arc of youth destroyed, Ricky Abilez is strong in the role of the young Tobias Ragg. In this version, we know his fate from the beginning, and Abiliez smoothly helps us see Toby’s transition.
Stephen John gambled a bit with his minimalist set design. The action takes place mostly on the lower level, with the barber shop and Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop occupying the same space on stage, marked by the placement of set pieces, which is quite unusual. The design works in the sense that it focuses the audience on the performances rather than special effects or intricate props, yet it tends to diminish some of the show’s central points.
An important piece of the action revolves around Sweeney’s victims dropping from his chair directly into the bake house below, and so the design somewhat cuts off this layer. Both the barber chair and the bake house oven are in many ways vital characters in their own rights, but we are unable to feel their full effect without the extra layer.
And yet, with such strong performances, that is only nit-picking details. This cast delivers the Victorian legend of Sweeney Todd with faith and strength. There is a precision in their demeanor and purity to their vocals that easily pours through the entire evening and leaves the audience on the edge of their seats. This October is a wonderful time to return to the foggy streets of London, sit back in your favorite barber’s chair, and Attend the Tale of Sweeney Todd.
What: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
When: October 8-23. Fridays and Saturdays 8:00 pm; Sundays 3:00 pm.
Where: Curtis Theater
1 Civic Center Dr.
Brea, CA 92821
Tickets: Can be purchased Here.