The butcher, the baker

TheatreWorks sets a murderous tale in WWII London

Leave the young kids at home for this delightfully grisly black comedy. "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" tells the tale of a London barber who turns to using his blades for more than just close shaves. Given that the tale centers on a mass murderer, there's precious little gore in this production. Still, the story itself is enough to make one's blood run cold.

Steven Sondheim's 1979 musical with book by Hugh Wheeler tells the popular 19th century horror story of Benjamin Barker, a naive young man married to an unusually pretty woman. Her looks attract the attention of a corrupt London judge, who hands down a life sentence to Barker, then handily takes the beauty for himself.

As the play opens, Barker has escaped prison after 15 years, and has returned to London in search of his wife and his daughter, who was just an infant when he was sent away. In order to disguise his true identity, Barker goes by the name of Sweeney Todd. Soon, he learns that his wife poisoned herself in desperation, that his daughter Johanna is a ward of the hateful Judge Turpin -- and, worst of all -- that the judge now has designs on marrying Johanna.

It's at this point that Todd, here played by a steely-eyed David Studwell, begins his descent into madness. You know something's up when he begins addressing his old razors as "my friends," but it's when he does a little jig and cries, "They all deserve to die!" that one realizes Barker is indeed barking mad.

Originally a Victorian villain, Sweeney Todd has been updated for this production. TheatreWorks Artistic Director Robert Kelley has chosen to set the murderous barber in the middle of the London Blitz of 1940, the better to drown out the screams of Todd's victims with the wailing of air raid sirens.

It's the eerie whine of the sirens that opens the show, sending characters surging across the stage for the underground shelters. Stage left is the yawning mouth of a London Underground tunnel in Andrea Bechert's evocative and efficient set. A spiraling iron staircase leads up to Todd's barbershop where customers are dispatched in plain view of the audience, yet hidden from the street below. Also notable is the rather ingenious barber's chair, which transforms with the pull of a lever into a chute, transporting the unfortunate gentlemen conveniently through a trapdoor. (They thud a bit on the way down, making one wonder whether the actors sustain many bruises). The bodies pop out conveniently in Mrs. Lovett's pie shop, where business is picking up significantly, despite war rationing.

Ah, Mrs. Lovett. Neither the Todd's taste for revenge nor this production would get very far without her. Tory Ross attacks the role with absolute relish. Straight from her opening number ("The Worst Pies in London") she's punching her dough and wielding her rolling pin with gusto, not to mention belting out one of the most complex melodies in the musical. There's no hiding Mrs. Lovett's soft spot for the barber -- so desperate is she for his affections, even his bad habit of topping off his customers doesn't faze her -- but Ross plays Lovett as more of a cheerful opportunist than a lovelorn biddy. Of course, it's also her bright idea to dispose of the growing pile of bodies upstairs by -- ahem -- recycling them.

At the other end of the spectrum from Ross's comic role, Jack Mosbacher gives a strong performance as sweet-voiced straight man Anthony, the sailor who rescues Johanna (Mindy Lym) from the evil judge. Then there's young Toby (Spencer Kiely), the jumpy street urchin Mrs. Lovett takes under her wing and eventually trains as her pie-making apprentice. Kiely plays Toby as the overlooked wise fool who sees far more than anyone suspects, though his IQ takes an unexplained nosedive in Act Two.

In general, the strong cast makes for a smooth, tight ensemble. But it's Ross who carries the show, right up until Mrs. Lovett's ignoble end.

Speaking of the end, the final scene comes off as a parody of Hamlet: Bodies are strewn across the stage, though here it's shaving razors rather than poison-tipped rapiers that are to blame. Johanna and Anthony clutch each other and weep somewhere behind the hulking meat grinder.

At moments of dramatic climax or transition, the sirens pick up their wail, and wardens in helmets and trench coats come darting out, casting their flashlight beams across the stage. Theatrically, this device is a fun twist on the traditional blackout scene change. At the same time, the choice to set the story against the backdrop of WWII effectively dilutes the smaller drama; no matter how gruesome it gets on Fleet Street, a little bomb shrapnel raining down in enough to remind one that there are greater threats afoot than vengeful barbers.

What: "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street"

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View

When: Through Nov. 2, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. Added matinee on Wednesday, Oct. 29 at 2 p.m.

Cost: Tickets are $19-$74, with savings for educators, seniors, and those 30 and under.

Info: Go to theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.

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Like this comment
Posted by Christine
a resident of Greendell/Walnut Grove
on Oct 19, 2014 at 9:25 am

Great show. Well done. Worth seeing.

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