The degree of difficulty on Stephen Sondheim’s exquisite masterpiece “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is sublimely high. The tight harmonies and aggressive, rhyming syncopation that pulses through this viciously brutal, yet heart-filled story of a man and his revenge is so jadedly appealing. Every note has searing purpose, and it is easy to imagine Sondheim sitting and crafting this piece in the late 1970s as beads of blood, sweat and tears dot the score as he penned away.
What San Jose Stage Company does with this piece is remarkable, directed with a taut pithiness by Kenneth Kelleher. It is a production that plays very well at the Stage’s quirky three-sided space. But what stands out in this production are the mesmerizing performances by each principal, a group whose harmonies are tighter than the hardened twine in a brand new baseball.
The story follows the title character as he is rescued on the sea and brought to London, where he begins to share what drove him from London in the first place. A corrupt judge, who desired to pursue Todd’s wife, banished him. Now that Todd has returned, he asks the horrid bakery owner Mrs. Lovett about an apartment above the shop that is vacant, an apartment where a man named Benjamin Barker lived. Not long after the interaction, it is revealed that Barker is Todd, and the blood-soaked barber spends the duration of the play exacting his revenge through his grotesque, not-so-clean but oh-so-close shaves.
Sondheim’s work in this play, along with that of the razor-sharp book work of Hugh Wheeler, is loaded with dashing complexity. This is a veritable music lover’s playground, with such joyous and painful motifs and leitmotifs that are peppered throughout the show. It starts with an infallible execution of the opening number “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” by the company, a song shaped by the Dies Irae, the Catholic hymn sung on the day of judgement. The foreshadowing is beyond blatant, but hauntingly thrilling and oh so good. The constant shriek of the piercing whistle is all over the show and seems to give even more urgency to the proceedings.
The cast who executes this music is more than up to the task, led by Noel Anthony in the title role and Allison F. Rich as the comic relief, the morally complex Mrs. Lovett. There is so much to love here between the two, even though they go into a strange business, where human beings provide the filler in their meat pies.
What stands out immensely are Anthony’s eyes, which dart here and there with steely precision and a soul hell-bent on vengeance. He walks through space as if he is led by his shoulders, a powerful man whose pain fuels every sickening move. Sadly, he is unable to see what is hiding in front of him as it haunts in plain sight.
Rich is a devastatingly sly performer, loaded with a skill and versatility that makes her a Stage favorite. She moves from showcasing that skill in the absolute word feast “The Worst Pies in London” to someone who longs deeply for Todd’s love while he is all-consumed with his razors in “My Friends.” Rich possesses an uncanny ability to play characters that are loaded with a certain darkness and despair, especially in her musical theatre work, yet consistently finds the humor, giving audiences that entryway into her interpretations.
The young characters Anthony Hope and Johanna represent a kind of light that illuminates in this dark and desperate world. As Hope, Sam Faustine is a wonderful blend of naïveté and that which is personified in his name. And Monique Hafen’s Johanna is a tragic heroine who continues to believe in love, despite so much evidence to the contrary that meets her at every turn.
Other characters fill specific needs that are both poignant and humorous. As the Beggar Woman, Jill Miller continues to haunt with the chromatic descent in her leitmotif, a character that represents the nameless face of the downtrodden we interact with daily. As Pirelli, Ric Iverson carries quite a torch to bring more of the physical humor to the darkness, and his work in “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” is terribly fine. And the unsettling presence of Toby, a young man whose loyalty is rewarded in the form of one of the greatest songs in the Sondheim canon, “Not While I’m Around,” is handled with an eerie grace by Keith Pinto. Finally, Christopher Vettel is strong as the morally bankrupt Judge Turpin.
Incredibly enough, the music, which was originally performed by a 26-piece orchestra in the original 1979 Broadway production is covered brilliantly with only four pit musicians, led by Music director Katie Coleman. And Michael Palumbo’s sweeping set design, which is loaded with rustic and crimson touches, is lit beautifully, also by Palumbo.
What makes this piece such a landmark is its role as the anti-musical, considered also as a “black operetta.” What the Stage does in this production is allows the music and story to speak for themselves, even providing quite a bit of biting satire informed by our current, unstable era of political swampiness.
There are delectable surprises that line the show. Maybe not as delectable as a finger in a warm meat pie, but delectable nonetheless.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
San Jose Stage Company presents “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
The Word: Pure skill from note one, San Jose Stage pulls off a production that allows for a fresh look at one of Sondheim’s most memorable and complex works.
Stars: Five out of five
Through March 18th
Running Time: Two hours, 45 minutes with a 15-minute intermission
San Jose Stage Company
490 First Street, San Jose, CA
Tickets range from $30 – $65
For tickets, call (408) 283-7142 or visit www.thestage.org