Art Factory’s SWEENEY TODD is well sung but rough around the edges
Nostalgia is a powerful thing, because this reviewer’s experience of Art Factory’s production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street clearly shows. For many years, Sweeney Todd was my favorite musical of all time, and although my preferences have changed somewhat over the years, Stephen Sondheim and Hugo Wheeler’s Gothic Revenge Tragedy still holds a very special place in my heart. That sentimental value has proven to be a boon for Art Factory’s intimate output, which hits satisfying marks amid some notable stumbles. Although I am delighted to hear the songs I have loved since I was 16, I dare say that a lesser Sweeney Todd the fanatic may have enjoyed this production a little less.
This production, directed by the executive director of Art Factory Luke Hamilton, is competent. Sometimes it’s even quite loud – there are certainly highlights in his performances (the vocal quality is superb for the most part) and the intimacy of the space lends itself well to the kind of menacing atmosphere the show aims for. to mention. . However, there are small bumps and stumbles throughout this production that accumulate to drown out the potential impact.
Aesthetically, this production fits more into the Gothic interpretation of John Doyle‘s 2005 Broadway revival, in which the stage was designed to look like a mental hospital. For this iteration, the production designer Colton Berry (who also plays Anthony) painted the entire scene white except for a bloodstain on the back wall. Perhaps the point was to evoke a padded cell in a modern Bedlam, although I imagined one of the plastic-laden killing rooms of Dexter. I’m not outraged that the design doesn’t reflect the original’s devotion to Victorian-era industrialism; it has long been a staple of the contemporary Sweeney Todd productions to prioritize atmosphere over realism in the show’s design choices, and this production does that quite well.
Performance also hit most of the time, especially in the vocal department. Jared Alan Barnes is satisfying in the lead role, but only really soars in his portrayal of “Epiphany,” in which he finally begins to touch the searing rage that drives Sweeney’s actions. His voice has all the breadth and weight expected of a murderous barber, even if he sometimes loses confidence in his bass (I barely heard him during the “Johanna” quartet). I must point out, however, that whether intentionally or not, he makes such an impression of Len Cariou (the original Broadway Sweeney) that I wondered if I had unknowingly witnessed some kind of lip-sync performance of the original Broadway cast recording.
Barnes boasts a phenomenal scene partner in heather room, whose performance as Mrs. Lovett is arguably the best thing about this production. Unwavering by the litany of legendary actresses who have played Nellie Lovett, Hall takes command of the character and owns every beat of her performance. She leans more into the comedic elements of the character, but is careful that her brash exterior doesn’t overshadow Ms. Lovett’s more sinister interior. In several places, you can see the gears spinning behind its clownish facade, hinting at its darker machinations without giving too much away. Everything is finely calibrated and woven together to produce the show’s most fully realized performance. If I have one complaint about his performance, it’s that we sometimes lose some of his dialogue because of his overdone cockney accent.
Colton Berry and Ivanna Martinez do a great job filling the roles of young lovers Anthony and Johanna, though Berry seems to have to work a little harder to hit the character’s required high marks. He handles the challenge valiantly, but it’s safe to say he may not be used to Anthony’s soaring tenor (his assured, chesty growl on “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” on the other hand, made me shivers).
As despicable Judge Turpin, Sebastian Pinzon brings the sleazy but lacks some of the character’s menace. His threats to Anthony and his inadequacy with Johanna never seem to carry much gravity or weight. He sings well though, and there were audible gasps from the audience as he pulled his pants down during his performance of “Johanna.”
As the beleaguered Toby, David Martinez does a good job grounding his character’s innocence and love for Mrs. Lovett in his desperate desire to be valued, and he gets his fair share of pathos from it. As Toby’s former master, Adolpho Pirelli, Matthew Steven Lawrence plays with joy and aplomb, delivering breathtaking high notes.
When it comes to beggar woman and Beadle Bamford, Nicole Ercan sounds great but is far too hesitant with the character’s lewd propositions, which end up feeling awkward. Luke Hamiltonwho plays the Beadle, has fun with the twirling half of the mustache of the play’s villainous duo, but his voice is a little labored on “Ladies and Their Sensitivities.”
The set is also quite good, especially during the opening number and its covers. When the whole band sings the terrifying Sweeney Todd, they produce enough gravity to make you listen. Since the show book ends with a cover of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” it at least allows the production to come in and out with a bang.
A problem I have with the opening, however, is a problem I have with several other issues in the series: the directing is a bit lackluster. Characters will either freeze in place when they begin to sing, or they will move in unmotivated and clearly designed ways to produce variety. There are some engaging choices, like having Barnes break through imaginary space barriers and jump off the platform during “Epiphany.” However, a few songs stall because there isn’t enough for the actors to do.
Part of the problem is that the scene is framed by two large platforms, one representing Sweeney’s barbershop and the other representing Johanna’s bedroom in Judge Turpin’s house. This leaves only those two spaces and the small floor as potential play spaces, which means the actors are limited in how they can move around. After Sweeney commits his first kill, three members of the ensemble come out to perform another cover of the opening, and we have to wait for them to get on the platform, get into position and start circling him. . It doesn’t produce the effect I think is desired due to the limited amount of space on the rig, and having to wait for them to set up slows the pace of a rather crucial story pace considerably .
In fact, many of the problems in this production stem from the limitations of space. For example, Sweeney Todd is a show that requires virtually full orchestral accompaniment, which Art Factory’s relatively small performance space does not allow. Instead, the music is completely pre-recorded. Now, I don’t consider myself a snob when it comes to canned music; it’s often a necessary evil of smaller-scale productions like this, and it’s not impossible to pull off. However, the music for this show requires significant balance, as the speakers often blare so loudly that they drown out the actors on stage, who are already using microphones. Additionally, without a conductor to follow the cast, several musical cues were missed, forcing the performers to try to catch up (this was especially noticeable in “A Little Priest”, “Kiss Me” and “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir”). While those moments didn’t take much away from the show, they made me nervous that the actors couldn’t keep up when the music started to get…let’s say Sondheim-esque.
A baffling choice was also made to pump fog through the theater for most of the show, which makes for a very atmospheric opening, but produces diminishing returns as the play progresses (meaning that i had had enough a third of the way through act one). In addition, the machine is very loud and the sound of its hissing behind the scenes is both very audible and very distracting.
Like I said, I love it Sweeney Todd, so I forgave some of those flaws, although there were times when the technical issues were enough to get me out. At the end of the evening, I came away satisfied, although some of that satisfaction was more due to my love for the piece than the quality of the production. Still, it’s a fun night at the theater and there are enough positives that less fanatical audiences can find something to enjoy. Provided some of the technical issues can be ironed out, it could very well become more of the gory thrill ride the show is designed to be; especially if the part of the crowd that cheered at the judge’s inevitable demise is any indication.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street runs from April 22 through May 8 at Art Factory. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/sweeney-todd-tickets-161352604985 or by contacting the box office at (832) 210-5200.