“Sweeney Todd” is a show of magnificent music and abject cruelty. It’s treacherous to perform, but Stephen Sondheim’s discordant score and macabre lyrics are perfect vehicles to tell the tale of a universe ruled by “a dark and a vengeful god.”
In Theo Ubique’s ambitious staging, director Fred Anzevino’s cast delivers a chamber version of the show, economically packed into the No Exit Cafe’s ultra-intimate Rogers Park confines. There are problems, but the cast attacks the material with apt ferociousness. And in Philip Torre’s brooding, ghoulish Sweeney Todd, Anzevino has a baritone worthy of the epic role.
When: Through April 29
Where: Theo Ubique at the No Exit Cafe, 6970 N. Glenwood
Run time: 2 hours 40 minutes, with one intermission
The tale of Sweeney Todd is the stuff of urban legend and Victorian-era melodramas: Barber Benjamin Barker is sent to prison on false charges. Roughly 16 years later, he returns to London, intent on revenge. Barker takes the name Sweeney Todd and opens up a barbershop above a struggling bakery. It proves to be a symbiotic relationship: Hard up for fresh meat, bakery owner Mrs. Lovett (Jacquelyne Jones) is soon turning a profit via cannibalism while Sweeney slits the throats of his hapless customers.
Under the music direction of Jeremy Ramey, “Sweeney” opens with majestic, chilling impact. The quartet (Ramey on keys, Simeon Tsanev on violin, Jay Gummert on reeds, Rachel Schuldt on cello), sounds like a mighty orchestra. Partially obscured by a wispy scrim, the quartet has ghostly feel that’s wonderfully apropos.
Sondheim’s score is rooted in dissonance, which makes singing it a formidable endeavor. The 13-person cast delivers a mighty sound, alternately roaring like fire-and-brimstone and hushed like scuttling rats. When Torre enters and unleashes his sonorous baritone, you know the show’s in good hands.
As Sweeney’s partner in crime Mrs. Lovett, Jones finds the dark comedy that keeps the show from being all-but unbearably bleak. Sweeney’s bloodlust is fueled by obsession. Mrs. Lovett’s homicidal tendencies are the product of a cheerfully pragmatic nature. If Todd is Satan’s wrath incarnate, Mrs. Lovett is a cheerfully amoral Girl Scout, ever resourceful and handy with a knife.
There’s fine work by the supporting players as well. Frankie Leo Bennett’s exquisite falsetto and childlike demeanor are well suited to Mrs. Lovett’s naïve, endearing assistant. John B. Leen’s Judge Turpin is spooky and (when he reveals his plans to marry the girl he raised as a daughter) grotesque.
As the Beadle (Judge Turpin’s assistant), Kevin Webb proves himself a talent to watch. There’s a flickering moment when the Judge reveals his marriage plans to the Beadle. Just for an instant, the Beadle registers absolute revulsion In a blink, the mask goes back on and the Beadle is again an oily sycophant with a crocodile grin. It’s a small moment that reveals a lot about Webb’s prowess.
Young lovers Johanna (Cecilia Iole) and Antony (Nathan Carroll) always present a problem in “Sweeney Todd,” demanding that the audience believe they’re ready to wed before they know each other’s name. As love stories go, it’s preposterous. But Iole and Carroll make the romance believable because their characters are so ardently daffy. They’re perfectly matched, and afterall, it’s the love that’s important. Small matters like knowing each other by name (and whether your house has a gate) will follow eventually.
Where the production misses the mark substantially is in the technical details. Famously, the show features a throne-like barber’s chair that dispatches Sweeney’s victims from barber shop to bakehouse. Here, the barber’s chair/deathtrap looks like an unfinished item from an Ikea clearance bin. That’s noticeable but forgivable, given the confines of No Exit.
Not so easy to excuse: All of the “meat-grinding” takes place off-stage. This robs the play of its central metaphor and the horrors at its heart. The penultimate scene – when the audience is supposed to be confronted head-on with the shocking carnage Sweeney has wrought — suffers considerably.
Missing meat aside, one of the most powerful scenes in “Sweeney” comes in its epilogue. The dead rise to deliver a chorus that puts the whole story in chilling perspective. Sweeney, they intone, is everywhere. He may be sitting next to you. He may be walking behind you. It’s a disquieting notion to say the least, and a bleak world view indeed. The ensemble conveys all of that. They’ll have you looking over your shoulder, hoping the darkness is far behind you.
Catey Sullivan is a Chicago-based freelance writer.