Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Florida - Southern

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Palm Beach Dramaworks
Review by Jeffrey Bruce | Season Schedule


Photo: Shane R. Tanner
Photo by Samantha Mighdoll
Palm Beach Dramaworks has mounted a terrific production of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's masterpiece, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, for South Floridians to savor over the summer months.

The audience enters Michael Amico's set. Mr. Amico rarely, if ever, disappoints, and this set is above even his highest standards. Equipped with an elevator to transport those who meet Mr. Todd's "completed" arm, his victims are dispatched with alacrity. The familiar story gets the Japanese Noh Theatre treatment from director Clive Cholerton, in that the chorus, also doing stagehand duty, give and take props and other accoutrements from the cast members and the effect is eerily different. And satisfying.

An unusual story to be musicalized, this production stresses the relationships among both the good guys and the bad. The venal Judge Turpin has sent Benjamin Barker to Australia for a protracted prison term. Renaming himself Sweeney Todd, Barker returns to London to enact his revenge upon the judge. Barely recognizable as Barker due to a simian-like beard and Woolworth wig, Sweeney meets up with the wacky and wonderful Mrs. Lovett who runs the local bakery, making "the worst pies in London" for all to "enjoy." A relationship develops between the two, emotionally unrequited on Sweeney's part, and he appeals to her rather "creative side" as they begin to fill their pies with the remains of Todd's victims. Foremost, of course, is evil Judge Turpin. While there are many more along the way, Todd's and the audience's satisfaction when he dispenses with the judge is the most satisfying.

As the rest of the piece unwinds, we are brought into an underworld of London. Its inhabitants are the young lovers Johanna and Anthony, played by Jennifer Molly Bell and Paul Louis Lessard, both of whom have beautiful voices, are young, and have terrific chemistry. This, in spite of the fact that Ms. Bell is hampered by a wig that defies description. On this slight, petite woman, it is overpowering. While I am harping, several of the wigs could use some trimming. We want to see the actor's faces! But, I digress.

As usual, Cholerton has cast the supporting roles meticulously. Michael McKenzie and Jim Ballard, as Turpin and The Beadle respectively, flesh out, you should pardon the expression, their roles with British elan. McKenzie mines sympathy from a role that, certainly, should not require or need it—a terrific take on Turpin. But just watch Ballard, clad in leather trenchcoat and chains, as he manages to wring every bit of humor inherent in the role of The Beadle (who knew there was humor?). Both McKenzie and Ballard are handsome guys who are usually cast as leading men. Congrats to both on jobs well done.

One of the toughest roles in the show is that of the Beggar Woman. Shelley Keelor is lovely and young, but pro that she is, she made me a believer. The character's pitiful sexual advances toward men and, ultimately, her fate, while inevitable, make her the most unwelcome victim of all.

Shane R. Tanner as Sweeney almost does the impossible, in going from introspection to outrage in a flash. If his accent is not maintained fully throughout, I saw him on opening weekend and the other attributes he brings to the role more than compensate. He is a tall, broad-shouldered man with a very strong stage presence. It's always good to see an actor acting through his eyes as well as the verbiage, and along with his booming baritone, he is a Todd for the times.

I saw the original production with Angela Lansbury, then Dorothy Loudon as Mrs. Lovett, and June Havoc on tour. They all received top billing, and with good reason. Sweeney Todd is Mrs. Lovett's show. At Dramaworks, Ruthie Stephens is a revelation. British born and delightful in the company's A Little Night Music a season or two ago, as Charlotte, she wraps Todd as well as the audience around her little finger. Her diction is exquisite, her belt clarion and, to top it off, she's a sexy beauty, qualities none of the women I saw before could pull off. Just watch the way she cocks a brow and throws a line with double entendre. She also underplays, when appropriate, to great effect.

In the past, the simple youth Tobias, well played and well sung by Evan Jones, dispenses with Todd at the finale by slashing his throat. Mr. Cholerton has chosen to have Todd slash his own throat, which is equally effective. It makes perfect sense for Todd, with all of the emotions he has had to endure to commit suicide. Interesting.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the atmospheric, London fog-ish lighting design of Donald Edmund Thomas and the sound design by Brad Pawlak. I have groused about Dramaworks' aural problems for years and it, at last, seems to have been corrected. Brian O'Keefe's excellent costumes deserve an ovation. Perfectly executed and of the era, they add to the overall, wonderful picture that is Sweeney Todd.

Lastly, musical director Manny Schvartzman seems to have done the impossible—taking symphonic orchestrations and making them sound as though a symphony, indeed, is playing them when, in truth, there are "only" five players. And they deserve mention: Dale Sandvold (violin), Julie Jacobs (persussion), Christopher Glansdorp (cello), and Rick Kissinger (reeds). Their intrepid leader, Maestro Schvartzman, is on keyboards. Bravi to all!

The cast rehearsed for 2 1/2 weeks. Sondheim is as difficult, if not more so, than the hardest Gilbert and Sullivan. It is mind-boggling to see what they all accomplished in such a short period of time. I foresee many Carbonell awards (SoFla's Tonys) in their future. While this is "just" a summer show, which was completely sold out at the performance I attended, it far surpasses many of the in-season shows of the past year. Congrats to Bill Hayes and Sue Ellen Beryl, who are hands-on Artistic Directors and to stage manager James Danford who, with over 500 cues to call, keeps Sweeney smooth sailing, throughout.

It's summertime. Bring the kiddies ... it's not anything they haven't seen before (that said, let's amend that to 10 years and up, shall we?).

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, through August 6, 2017, at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 West Clematis Street, West Palm Beach, Florida. For information and tickets, call 561-514-4042 or visit palmbeachdramaworks.org for tickets. [Note: Dramaworks has just instituted a "Pay Your Age" ticket. For those from 18-40 that's what you'll pay!]


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