A good bite of pie can leave you swooning over its every morsel, with its moist, buttery crumb and rich, decadent filling. Whether sweet or savory, it’s a one-slice meal, or a sweet treat at the end of dinner, or a delightful snack, no matter the time of day. As scrumptuous as this little slice of heaven can be, when made with the wrong ingredients, it can look delicious, yet leave you wanting for something more substantial—especially if belabored by a dry crust and questionable innards. Much like the meat pies Mrs. Lovett makes in her shop off Fleet Street in the beginning of “Sweeney Todd,” the latest musical production and season-opener of Opera House Theatre Company needs a few more ingredients and some more kneeding before it can successfully fill a theatre-goer’s appetite.
The 30-plus year, Tony Award-winning musical by Stephen Sondheim made its debut in 1979, and went on numerous tours throughout the ‘80s, ‘90s and aughts, all of which culminated in a 2007 film counterpart made by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp. The era of “Sweeney Todd”—set in mid-19th century London and based on penny dreadful writings in The People’s Periodicals—is set in the slum of Fleet Street, which seems perfect for a fearful story of vengeance and horror.
A barber, Benjamin Barker, has been exiled from London by the vicious Judge Turpin (Richard Bunting), who lusts after Barker’s wife and takes their child, Johanna (Arianna Torello), to raise as his own. Barker serves time in Australia on false charges but returns to London, courtesy of a sailor (Paul Teal) who picks him up at sea. Barker takes on the alias Sweeney Todd (Jeffrey Phillips) and goes into business with the street’s local baker, Mrs. Lovett (Katherine Vernon), who rents out the upstairs barber shop. Together, they take in the city’s high-end clients to exact revenge on all poverty-stricken injustices done to them—particularly to Barker/Todd. Mrs. Lovett’s storefront shop goes from destitute to successful, thanks to meat pies she makes from the demon barber’s slain clients. Suddenly, her once grotesque-tasting fare becomes truly grotesque and cannibalistically enticing, unbeknownst to its buyers who eat up the pies like savages.
Almost every exceptional moment of this show comes courtesy of Katherine Vernon. She brings to life the most colorful role of Mrs. Lovett. Vernon’s ever the seasoned actress; she not only fully embraces the wonky personality of this down-on-her-luck business owner, she also has all of her body language down pat. In Act I she shows off a worn-down, hopeless baker: slunched shoulders, scornful facial expressions, droopy head, and Cockney accent to boot. Mrs. Lovett is an opportunist, who moves in fast and stealthily when seeing a way to make money. Vernon plays up the character’s hopeful desperation driven by street moxie in Act II. Everything about her becomes a bit brighter as we see her pie shop picking up business and wealth. And Vernon’s voice! What a phenomenal singer! Most moments of humor can be pointed to her songs, like “I am a Lass” and “The Worst Pies in London.”
Matching her passion and exuberance is the delightful George Domby as Judge Turpin’s second-hand man, Beadle Bamford. Domby’s pomposity and delusion of power are spot-on, with every chest rise and chin-up. And his royal purple costume, matched with superbly done makeup, only add to the caricature that is Beadle. “Parlour Songs” shines brightest with Domby and Vernon sharing stage time; he is the only one who manages to match her exuberance.
Secondary characters actually take a great deal of the spotlight in “Sweeney Tood: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” The powerful ensemble—adorned in perfect Victorian-era rags, courtesy of Juli Harvey—raise their collective voice to spur moments of titillation and with dramatic choreography done by director Ray Kennedy. Cindy Collucci as Beggar Woman, offers panache as always and carries the foretelling of the show to needed heights (“City on Fire”). The swindling blackmailer Pirelli creates much-needed tension, as played by Ken Griggs with an impressive amount of sly swagger. “Pirelli’s Entrance” perks up Act I and gets the show moving during a dentist scene that had my theatre companion on pins and needles.
I can’t say it affected me the same.
First off, the music in “Sweeney Todd” practically consists of all ballads. If the entire cast isn’t throwing every ounce of passion and verve into it as they can muster, it really tends to bore. The score itself is not one of my faves from Sondheim; my theatre companion says because it offers very little melodically. Perhaps so. If the acting isn’t overly dramatic and filled with a hefty dose of intensity, the music seemingly falls flat.
This show has been done as an opera, and after seeing it live, I can see why. It needs raw power; it needs over-reaching voices to make the libretto affect audiences—to make us care about these characters. While I love Jeffrey Phillips and his beautiful voice, his characterization of Sweeney Todd did not feel threatening; he actually seemed too humble. There wasn’t enough menace or pain apparent to understand his plight—to believe his story would charge him into maniacal hysteria. He seemed more sad than angry. And while sadness can of course lead to regrettable actions, when it comes to murder, we need something more. There wasn’t enough gusto to get behind his pain for killing innocents at his barber chair.
The same can be said for Bunting’s Judge Turpin. This character is perverse—in ways that humanly should disgust. A person capable of such unimaginable betrayal to raise a child as their own and then try to seduce her should have a pretty big ego by my standards. While his lines were recited, the action behind them did not match. His control and lust did not come through as aggressive or ill-boding.
The love story that unfolds in “Sweeney Tood” between the sailor and Johanna comes across loose in this production as well. I can’t say it’s from the writing, seeing as this play has been highly popular for so many years. The chemistry between Teal and Torello doesn’t gel as new lovebirds. While Torello’s voice impresses upon the ears, mainly because of its insane sopranic reach (“Kiss Me”), she also overshadows anyone singing with her because of it.
The set and lighting design—courtesy of Terry Collins and Dallas LaFon—is greatly effective, from the townhomes of the rundown Fleet Street, to the pushcart of Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir, to Mrs. Lovett’s parlor. And shrouding the barber chair in red during each bloodbath gives it a punch most assuredly appreciated.
Though I wanted to love “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” unfortunatley, this slice doesn’t hold up against its dense crumb. Few tasty bites are there; moments, if fleeting, can be enjoyed. Yet, overall, the mayhem and character portrayal needs more meat to substantiate it.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Thalian Hall, 315 Chestnut St.
Fri. March 6-8, 8 p.m.
Sun. matinees, 3 p.m.
Tickets: $29 • www.thalianhall.org