Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Theatre Review - Sweeney Todd - The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

I was lucky enough to win a pair of tickets to Sweeny Todd produced by the Musical Theater Program at my local university. I knew the basic premise of the musical but had never seen it before (also hadn't seen the recent movie version due to my personal avoidance of "R" rated films). I was a little nervous that it might be over-the-top gruesome but went into it optimistically hoping for "tasteful" murder (is such a thing possible). I was especially hoping for it to be "toned down" since I was taking my lovely wife and she is definitely NOT a fan of over the top horror, gore or gruesome.

I've been to a couple of plays up at the University but this was my first time in Studio 115. It's a smaller "black box" style theater with a thrust stage where theatre seats wrap around 3/4 of the stage. It probably seats about 100 people. The stage jutted way out into the middle of the auditorium and the props were fairly minimal.

In the center of the stage was a slightly raised platform with a couple of chairs situated around an elevated black coffin. At the far end upstage were some raised platforms acting as steps up to a bridge-like platform extending the length of the room. On this platform sat a lone chair next to a table with various small items (later revealed to be razors, shaving bowls, etc). Under the table sat a handful of metal buckets. Behind this raised platform hung floor-to-ceiling semi-opaque plastic sheeting as though in preparation to catch and block blood spatter…sort of an ominous prospect. Throughout the play there were a few additional small props brought on at times and a couple of chairs moved around but generally that was the extent of the props and scenery. It was very minimalistic which I felt added to the creepy vibe.

Sitting in the central area just a bit behind the coffin was an old-fashioned wooden wheelchair complete with an emaciated and sickly looking hospital patient with a bandage on his head and wrapped in a straightjacket. At various corners and edges of the stage were additional cast members each with a frantic, nervous look in their eyes and often twitching or glancing suspiciously around. Everybody's face was painted pale and white except for sporadic pock-marking or sores. Everyone's eyes were surrounded by a deep black giving them all the appearance of dead or near-dead.

We were in our seats a few minutes before "curtain" so we got to watch some of the nervous, anxious behavior. At first I thought the girl in front of us maybe had some makeup in her eyes or something, but then I realized that she was suffering from a rather realistic looking nervous (and angry) tic.

The show began with the visible cast members singing the "Ballad of Sweeny Todd." As they sang, a few more people came on stage and they all wandered around a bit while they sang. Getting a close look at the costumes and makeup on each of these characters really was a shivering site. They definitely represented the insane, the disease ridden, the poverty stricken….they certainly had the feel of crawling out of the London gutters. I won't spoil Sweeney's initial appearance by giving details, but I have to say that his entrance was rather dramatic and cool and helped set the tone for his character and for the play.

Through the singing of the first couple of songs I quickly realized one rather stark down side to this production. The musical accompaniment was being "piped in" via a sound system. Unfortunately, the instrumentation was VERY loud in contrast with the vocals. I'm not sure if some of the cast didn't have microphones at all or if they just weren't working or if the balance was just bad, but there were a lot of times throughout the entire play when I could tell that somebody was singing but I could not actually hear the words as often the voice was little more than a mumble against the blaring instruments. We did see the show on opening night, so hopefully this was a "first night" problem that will be quickly rectified for future performances.

As we were sitting midway up the left side, I was nervous that we might miss some of the action to the play, but the stage direction was well done and kept the characters frequently moving around and directing themselves towards each of the three main seating areas. There were a couple of scenes where the primary characters were on the far right side and it was hard to see and hear what they were doing but it was always easy to follow along. There was only one scene that was entirely directed towards the center seats…I would have liked to have seen that shot straight on as it was likely very dramatic visually (it's the scene where the judge is sentencing a criminal), but again I was able to see the entire scene from my angle and interpret fully what was happening.

The story was interesting and well presented. For those unfamiliar with the basic plot, this is the story of a barber named Sweeny Todd (aka Benjamin Barker). Barker had once lived in London with his lovely bride and was awaiting the birth of his first child. A pair of vile men in town lusted after his wife and so accused and convicted Barker of a crime he didn't commit and got him shipped off to a penal colony with a life sentence so they could pursue his wife. At the start of the play, Barker has managed to escape and return to London under the name Sweeney Todd. He plans to exact his revenge on those who sent him away and took his wife. All of that is told fairly early on, so I don't consider that "spoiler" content. The next line is semi-spoilery so skip down if you want to be surprised…the gruesome bit comes in the fact that Sweeney plans to kill his prey by slitting their throats while giving them a shave. Not everything goes according to plan and while he is waiting to get his revenge, he ends up killing other people. Rather than let their bodies "go to waste", he works with the landlady to grind up the victims and serve them as meat pies. Pretty disgustingly gruesome, right?

I already more or less knew the plot but I wasn't aware that there was a tragic love story running alongside the story of Sweeney. One of Sweeney's shipmates (Anthony) falls in love with a girl but is blocked from wooing her and has to overcome numerous obstacles to try and be with her. This story arc was surprising and unexpected. I suspect that this arc exists partly to try and "tone down" the otherwise horribly dreadful theme of the story as a whole.

The first half of the play was very interesting and had a lot of great character and plot development. Knowing the inevitable path Sweeney would take, I kept waiting "for the shoe to drop" but surprisingly we stayed murder-free for a considerable time. Instead we were presented other depravities. We learn the story of what happened to Sweeney's wife (which was very tragic). We see the vile and disgusting natures of the judge and the beadle. They are hideous human beings. We have a number of humorous interactions with the Meat Pie vendor Mrs. Lovett. As Sweeney is working to establish himself as the new barber we even get an interaction with his competition, a boastful and humorous Italian barber.

Finally, just before the end of the first act, we get the first murder of the play. It isn't pre-meditated and Sweeney seems a little shocked at the outcome. The portrayal of the death involved pulling a long red piece of fabric from around the neck and collar area of the victim, waving it lightly in the air and then wrapping it back around the neck of the victim to present the person as dead. As a sort of morose twist, the "dead" victims continue to wander around the stage and participate as members of the chorus (and even take on other roles in some parts of the play). This added to the creepiness as we always had the murder victims in view. The first act ends with a very humorous song as Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett figure out what to do with the body. Their behavior combined with the lyrics really convinced me that these two people were absolutely insane.

We made it through the first act with relatively little blood and gore but it was still chillingly disturbing. The second act, as you may have guessed, had many more murders. Many of them were strangely juxtaposed by a romantic love ballad by Anthony and his intended (Johanna) with Sweeney and others joining in at times as well. There were a lot of very strange moments where a dark or horrific incident was carried out alongside music that was either soft and soothing or lighthearted and funny. In some ways it helped downplay the intensity. In other ways, it made the scene eerie on a new level.

Each of the murders continued to use the long red scarf method of killing and designating the kill, but they also added in the creepy and disturbing motion of the victim pouring a bucketful of blood from a metal bucket at their feet to a metal bucket held down below by Mrs. Lovett. While it was obviously not real blood, the setting, dim lighting and overall tone really made this a sickening prospect conducted again with minimal props, makeup or actual gore.

It's hard to exactly say "I enjoyed" this play as it is very visceral and disturbing. This is a morality play without any real redemption for any of the characters. There is a slightly happy ending for some of the characters, but most of the cast dies and those who don't die and up emotionally and psychologically scarred.

I can say that I was entertained and I really felt like the cast and crew did a wonderful job putting this on. They had a small cast, a small stage, very minimal props and scenery and they presented a very engrossing and vivid production. I only had two small gripes. I already mentioned the first (the instrumentation overpowered the vocals). The second was that they had a fog machine blasting during some scenes and for the small size of the theater, I felt like it was overused and at times I felt the foggy fumes a bit too much for the enclosed area.

Overall this was a well done production and I must applaud the Theatre department at the U for a job well done. The play runs through November 18 so if you're in the Salt Lake area and in the mood for some creepy, gruesome yet well done musical theater, you should check it out. Will I be seeing it again? Probably not. Once was sufficient. Some of the songs were fun and catchy but the overarching theme and story are heavy enough that it's not likely something I'd be returning to again and again. Maybe I'll just play the soundtrack or something. If you're a fan of Sweeney Todd (movie or play) or if you happen to go see this production, let me know what you think.


Brian Miller said...

pretty cool...i love broadway and theatre...i understand there are ones that you only see once, the experience being a bit much...i would probably see this one once...i want to say CNU did this or is going to do it...

Sana said...

I've only been to a show once on Broadway, but loved it! I look forward to more in my local area. :) I really liked reading your review, very detailed and well written. Thanks for taking the time to do so, as well as for the other movie and book reviews on your blog.