Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (The Microsoft Theatre Troupe)

Posted on October 25, 2011


The Microsoft Theatre Troupe Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Photo by Aleks Barbour.

The Microsoft Theatre Troupe kicked off its 16th Season, October 20th with a performance of Stephen Sondheim’s unconventional comedic musical thriller, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet StreetSweeney Todd tells the story of Benjamin Barker, a man who has had everything of value wrongfully taken from him including his freedom, his wife and daughter and his very own identify as he is forced to become Sweeney Todd.  He returns from his false imprisonment in Australia only to discover that his wife has killed herself after being raped by the man who sentenced him to jail.  It gets worse.  Since the suicide of his wife, his daughter Joanna has been raised as a ward by very same man…Judge Turpin.

Consumed by revenge against the judge, Todd befriends Mrs. Lovett, an opportunistic but infamously terrible pie maker and goes through the motions of resuming his work as a barber, sustained only by the thought of one day getting his revenge on Judge Turpin.  As fate would have it, a young sailor Todd befriended on the voyage home falls in love with Joanna (Teresa Macdonald) but Judge Turpin, secretly desiring Joanna for himself, forbids the sailor Anthony Hope (Billy Holdsworth) from speaking to her.  Anthony Hope is aptly named as he, and to a lesser degree Joanna, seems to represent the moral conscience in the play and Hope remains faithfully committed to that role, never selling out.  The plot is set into motion, for love will not be denied, nor will the all-consuming lust for revenge.

The Microsoft Theatre Troupe Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Photo by Aleks Barbour.

Sweeney Todd is a melancholic but refreshingly honest exploration of human nature itself and what it means to be human.  It candidly portrays the good, the bad and the ugly side within each one of us.  Too often we, like others around us, take refuge from our own internal struggles and lapses in judgment and determine that it is safer to just put on the mask.  We opt to hide our true self, out of shame, denial or self-deception, projecting to the world the image of us that we want others to see.  Of course, it is the image that portrays us in the best possible light.

We may watch with judgmental horror at the actions of the characters within the story (and clearly they are extreme examples) but later upon honest self-reflection, ask ourselves what would we have done differently if thrown into a similar extreme situation.  Todd is a man who has lost everything that he valued: his reputation, his very identity, his freedom and his family.  There is only one man, whom he can blame for the totality of his loss and that is Judge Turpin.  Therefore, he chooses initially to focus all of his rage against this man and in doing so, finds a reason to keep living but the path chosen is a soul killing one.

The Microsoft Theatre Troupe Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Photo by Aleks Barbour.

There are many tragic occurrences in the play but perhaps the greatest tragedy is, that which the Judge could not kill off in Todd (husband, father – the good qualities of the man that he used to be), Todd inevitably ends up killing off in himself; thereby completing the job and denying himself the chance of ever being Benjamin Barker again.

Sweeney Todd may not be an uplifting tale by its macabre nature but the Microsoft Theatre Troupe (http://mstheater.org/), complete with live orchestra, knocks a very challenging operatic musical out of the park.  Having never been to one of MTT’s performances prior to Sweeney Todd, I was unsure what to expect.  Apparently sixteen years of experience has taught them how to put on an incredibly professional and entertaining production; including sound, lighting, stage direction and one extremely capable group of actors.

The Microsoft Theatre Troupe Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Photo by Aleks Barbour.

Ken Post does an admirable job in portraying Sweeney Todd as a dark, emotionally tortured and brooding figure consumed by a lust for revenge.  The danger in having such a strong morose lead character is that it can infect the entire performance and the audience as well; sapping energy and coming off a bit heavy, but four things prevent that from happening.  First, Ken successfully navigates the full range of manic emotions from his shrill highs to his emotionally dead lows – all inspiring gasps of shock or laughter from the audience.  Secondly, he is cast against the enchanting Arwen Morton who plays the gregarious and outspoken, though morally compromised Mrs. Lovett.  Together they strike a wonderful balance of contrasting personalities and keep their scenes (even the disturbing ones) engaging, high energy and fun.  They have great chemistry and each effectively helps to balance out the other.  Thirdly, it seems as if every scene as it’s about to lose energy gets reinvigorated by the delightful repeated walkthroughs of the Beggar Woman (Kate Witt) who somehow manages to steal every scene that she’s in.  Fourthly, the supporting cast is quirky and strangely wonderful; helping to keep the bawdy, guilty pleasure that is Sweeney Todd, an entertaining, over-the-top, rollicking ghoulish rollercoaster ride through the darker side of life.

The Microsoft Theatre Troupe Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Photo by Aleks Barbour.

In a play which effectively turns a black and white world into varying shades of gray; where the protagonist of the tale is the dark anti-hero Sweeney Todd, it requires an even larger and shadier more tortured soul to take and hold the mantle of a villain worthy of Todd’s malicious obsession.  In this, William Darkow masterfully plays the deliciously tormented Judge Turpin.  In contrast to Todd, who is suffering from pains inflicted upon him by the injustice of a world run by the elite who control the money and power, the Judge struggles again his very own self.  In one particularly disturbing scene (remarkably portrayed by Darkow) the Judge, fighting against his fleshly passion and the consuming desire to force itself carnally upon Joanna (Todd’s daughter and the Judge’s own ward), self flagellates himself before finally surrendering and giving himself fully over to his own base nature.

Yes, Sweeney Todd may be sinfully indulgent and deal with dark subject matters, but the cast manages to convey a bit of ‘tongue in cheek’, letting us know that it’s all in good fun and okay to enjoy it for what it is.  If that’s not enough, Tobias Rigg’s (McKenna Turner) mischievous nature and energy is infectious, the songs are hauntingly addictive (I still find myself humming, ‘My Friends’ while shaving each morning) and Sweeney Todd is impeccably timed to enhance your Halloween experience.

The Microsoft Theatre Troupe’s performance of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street opened Thursday, October 20th at 8pm and runs Thursday-Saturday until November 12th in Café 31 and tickets are a steal at only $15 with all proceeds donated to charity.  Reserve your seats now at http://www.mstheater.org.