’Sweeney Todd’ thrills eager audiences

“God, that’s good!” exclaimed the enchanted Londoners, nudging elbows with one another as they consumed meat pies. For a minute, everything seemed jolly – pie! The 19th century! Then, of course, we remembered that those pies are made of human flesh. Cap & Bells’ production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street elicits precisely the same reaction as observing this crowd of unwitting cannibals: gruesome irony and yet, overarchingly, delight.

With four sold-out shows from Thursday to Saturday as well as a sold-out Wednesday evening invited dress rehearsal, Sweeney’s raucous success derived from its ability to be simultaneously maddening and entertaining. Directed by Eric Kang ’09 and Casey York ’10, the musical chronicles the quest for vengeance of Benjamin Barker, alias Sweeney Todd (Richard McDowell ’09), as he returns to England after 15 years in Australia on a trump charge to find that his wife has poisoned herself and his daughter, Johanna (Augusta Caso ’09), has been taken in as the ward of Judge Turpin (Chaz Lee ’11), the man who had wrongly incarcerated him. With the help of Mrs. Lovett (Margot Bernstein ’10), an unsuccessful baker and unrequited adorer, Todd takes up his old career as a barber and ends up killing scores of innocent men with his razor on his path to murdering the Judge. The corpses turn out to be excellent fodder for Lovett’s meat pies, and except for Johanna and her lover, the sailor Anthony (Nathaniel Basch-Gould ’11), the entire cast is left dead or insane by show’s end.

Why was this ridiculously perverse and macabre tale so awesome? The effect was due in large part to the immense talent of the cast and crew. A full pit orchestra, conducted by Steven Bodner, set the grisly scene and complemented soloists’ technically complex vocal performances like Caso’s “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” and McDowell’s “My Friends,” although focusing on vocals seemed to compromise the genuineness of their characters at times. Mastering an unusually difficult score by Stephen Sondheim ’50 that changes key and pace, sometimes every measure, the entire cast demonstrated their impressive abilities not only vocally but also through the details of character interpretation. The facial expressions of Terry Tamm ’08 brought a sharp vigor to the Judge’s sidekick Beadle Bamford, and even the brief character of insane asylum owner Jonas Fogg was animated with an eerie effeminateness by Evan Maltby ’11.

The rest of the ensemble, which included Caitlin Eley ’10, Rob Gearity ’11, Amanda Keating ’11, Jess Kopcho ’09, Tim Lengel ’11, Kate McCurdy ’09, Mandy O’Connor ’10, Daniel Rosenswieg ’08 and Chuck Shafer ’10, peopled the stage with the various spirits of London: one was never wanting of a drunkard or wench, and the talents of each individual company member could be heard in a variety of solos and smaller group pieces such as “The Letter.”

As Mrs. Lovett, Bernstein immediately obfuscated the line between enthusiasm and insanity with her big, provocative performance and powerful vocals. It is easy to see how Todd’s entrance into her bake shop signaled his slippage towards madness, or at least towards bleak lack of self-awareness; as she banged dough around and covered herself in flour in “The Worst Pies in London,” Bernstein began what was an almost non-stop, fever-pitch enthusiasm that distracted Todd from his vengeance and ultimately from his own evil. Juxtaposed against her high-octane fervor, McDowell’s performance was a comparatively gradual build-up to bloodlust. More often privately brooding over his plans, McDowell still amped himself up into authentic, fear-inducing rages.

The performance of Toby as an earnest and buoyant young boy by Lucas Bruton ’11 made his descent into insanity the show’s peak of emotionality in a landscape otherwise marked by grisliness. “Not While I’m Around,” the song in which Toby promises to protect Mrs. Lovett from Todd’s “evil deeds-like,” demonstrated Bruton’s sweet voice and allowed Bernstein to express her non-cartoony side.

Against the success of several stellar performances, the potential of some interpretations went unrealized. Natalie Smith ’10 (Beggar Woman) flirted with her character’s insanity but on the whole maintained only a disappointing moderato of battiness. The adorable Ben Kaplan ’11 (Signor Pirelli), too, did not take full command of his feature scene, letting McDowell’s glum patience overshadow what could have been the hysterical shaving antics of an exaggerated megalomaniac mountebank.

Attending the tale of Sweeney Todd was not as easy as many might have wished, due to the small amount of seating in its blackbox venue, the CenterStage. Nonetheless, directorial choices made by York as well technical aspects of the set and lighting design by Adam Stoner ’11 harnessed the theater’s unique potential to fashion the grimly gleeful world of Fleet Street. The space’s movable gondolas were positioned against the brick wall to create two isolated second floor playing spaces, and victims from Todd’s barbershop could thus literally travel down below to the first floor bakehouse to be made into pies. Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop mediated the space between the pie shop and bakehouse in an apt metaphor of the moral confusion between chopping up humans and enjoying their undeniable scrumptiousness. Capitalizing on the exposed brick and piping already present in the CenterStage, while accenting with fog and fabric, produced an eerie industrial ambiance befitting Sweeney’s somber plot of class oppression that loomed underneath the character’s intrapersonal torments.

The company and the theatrical space became one during “City on Fire,” in which the inhabitants of the asylum escape to the streets. Creating an atmosphere of expectation and terror lit in blood red, ensemble members scrambled on the caged floor above the audience’s heads, swung from pipes on stage and sung in terrifying bursts. This scene broke open the terrific energy that had been pulsing under the show’s surface, and on this momentum it rode successfully to its morose end.

The show repeatedly implicated the audience in its terror and grim joie. During “Epiphany,” the song in which Todd finally cracks and resolves that “we all deserve to die,” McDowell lifted his razor not only to Mrs. Lovett but to a front-row audience member. Characters roamed through the second-tier seating as if it were a London street, singing and speaking as they stepped over outstretched legs, and Todd and Lovett cracked cannibalistic jokes with the audience during “A Little Priest.”

Despite the numerous on-stage murders, not a drop of stage blood was spattered. Using this technique of omission, the production seemed to be pointing away from Sweeney-as-serial-killer and looking critically instead at the entire gruesome world that wrought him. Everyone is to blame, it seems, just as everyone is a victim. At the show’s end I pitied no one and feared everything, with an involuntary and broad smile on my face. God, that was good.