Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber of Fleet Street
at Steel River Playhouse
I would like to begin by noting to my audience that all thoughts and findings, perhaps even suggestions, are purely my own and are not paid for by the production, staff, cast, or the sponsor(s) of show seen and reviewed.
I think it’s imperative to note that this show is already unique in and of itself. If you don’t know much about it, it’s going to be hard (for me) to not reveal pertinent plot points that could be called spoilers, so tread carefully as you continue reading. I will start with some things to note that were special about this particular production and what I really enjoyed.. and I’ll mix what I didn’t enjoy so much throughout.
It started with the intriguing pre-show rituals of the actors. How did I notice these, you might ask? Because, for a majority of shows, actors remain back stage and handle their prep work without the public viewing. Not this show. Actors broke fourth wall almost immediately once the house was happened–greeting fans, admirers, general guests. They centered with one another, practicing staging and choreography when and as needed, either for their personal self or for their partners.
I had never seen another production, or even another theater, encourage this type of engagement between the actors and the audience. In my dutiful and preliminary observations, I was distracted enough by the going’s-on that I didn’t speak with the people who I knew in the show. My only point of discomfort, with this particular set up, was that I didn’t know if I had arrived too early and invaded the actors space. And as I am not the most observant person (speaking in general, I never miss anything on stage), I couldn’t recall having seen any signs or indications that this was on purpose. I kept checking my watch.. 15 minutes til, 10 minutes, 6 minutes, etc… to ensure my fears were wrong.
I also want to give kudos to a majority of the actors as they dealt with some unsettling moments.. what made these even more unsettling? They happened in the first 15-20 minutes of the show. As soon as Sweeney is introduced to Mrs. Lovett.. the table they used as a set piece, which I later discovered was used over and over again, broke at its stand. It wobbled the remainder of the song, lended itself almost useless for props and staging, and almost distracted them from their characters point. I will say, all the actors who used the table (post initial broken moment) and owned moving the set piece between scenes, barely batted an eye while using it. It was an initial shock, the crack actually reverberated through the audience, but it was a quick recovery/ignore the error mistake.
And, trust me, I kept looking every time the table was brought out and/or used to see if I could identify the person behind the character. Not in a petty way, but because I am always genuinely intrigued on whether or not people will keep reacting to something they know might happen again.
Speaking of props and set pieces, the use of the staging area was stark, on purpose for easy transition between the various types of scenes (mental health asylum, upper-class home, bakery, etc.) and to accommodate the large cast. Pieces and people flowed in and out of the scenes in a remarkable manner, it was almost effortless (it was only heavy in two moments: 1. after the one table broke and 2. the large tables and dance sequence for “God, that’s Good!”) through the entire show.
My only critique for the staging is because it was so stark for a majority of the time, when it was lit, you could see all of the light pools; one of which was a warm color versus the rest of the cool lights, I kept wondering if it would be used as a single spotlight for a particular song or singer, but it wasn’t. To me, it was distracting and I would’ve advised in changing the gel to ensure it matched and blended in with the other lights as they were so apparent (read: very distracting) on the floor. If this was a constraint, system–budget–timing?, why not have figured out how to use it in some type of way? Make the best of your surroundings and limitations.
Two more things about the staging, but this time props and costumes!
Because the stage was so stark, purposefully poorly lit with a range wider than I knew existed for a dark color spectrum, when color was used.. It. Was. Apparent. I was so intrigued, I kept waiting and hoping to see if more bright colors would be used in the show. Johanna was dressed in all white, blazingly obvious against the darkness of her surroundings. Mrs. Lovett wore a dark, rich looking purple dress once the shop started to do well; to me, it was reminiscent of a time when the rich made their money on the backs of the less fortunate, royal was a color long restricted to those in power.
Finally.. the last color use that made me catch my breath at every use (and there are so many), was the red ribbons for the murders by Sweeney. I found myself gasping every single time, even when I knew people were going to die, it didn’t matter. The stage, lighting, and costumes were the perfect back drop for the delightfully sickening red ribbons of death. Perfection.
Not everything was perfect, although for this show the good seriously outweighed the bad and I wish I had planned my life a bit better to have been able to see it at least one more time before it had closed.
- While there was good interaction between the actors upon Sweeney ‘coming back to life,’ and meeting his easily-squashed nemesis, Perelli…it was a bit disconcerting seeing his oddly proportioned young servant.
Tobias is meant to be a boy of 7-14, maybe even slightly older as long as he appears as a child. This productions Tobias was almost a full grown man and the same height, or taller, than his counterparts.
It made investment in his scenes very difficult and disjointed from the remainder of the show.
- I am a strong believer in ensuring consistencies amongst the ensemble members, they are the backbone of a production and often the immeasurable piece that either make or break a show.
Between ensemble songs, or other roles such as setting props and set pieces, the actors were allowed to sit in the staging area and watch their principals as if they were members of the audience. How delightful. I actually immediately made a mental note to check on the ability to do so for Forum, I really found it lovely…
But then someone crossed their legs and in the second act, they were talking amongst themselves. In the middle of a performance, in full view of the audience. What kind of respect does that portray to the audience to provide their peers? If it wasn’t working, because only a few could ruin it for a majority, maybe it could’ve been stopped by the director sooner so as not to negatively impact other performances.
- Speaking of ensemble and ensuring consistencies, and kind of in line with the very modern crossing of legs.. why on earth did any one allow any actor to contour on stage? And I’m not talking performance contour where you ensure you don’t look like death warmed over (especially under cool lighting), I mean the kind of contouring that looked forgotten about–you know when you forget to finish blending?
Yeah.. dark browns and light whites with clear delineations between the two. Nonsensical and inappropriate for the time period of the show. AND! no one else had any where near the same amount of make up on their face, it was just a complete mismatch of competing priorities.
I’d like to wrap up with the best part of the performance, specifically for this production. As this was one of the few shows I’ve seen performed both on stage as directed, but also as dramatic readings and in movies (remember that?), I forgot to listen to the music. My friends were in the cast and I knew how talented they were as singers, there really wasn’t a need for me to listen to the words. I found myself able to focus almost entirely on the staging, props, costumes, and general performance–it was a relief to my reviewer brain. There were moments when I did allow myself to get lost in the music, it’s hard not when they are right in front of you and some shows have those moments that draw audiences in.
- Worst Pies in London by Mrs. Lovett
- Pretty Women/Epiphany by Sweeney Todd, Judge Turpin, the Beadle
- A Little Priest by Mrs Lovett, Sweeney Todd
- Not While I’m Around by Tobias Ragg, Mrs. Lovett
These are my personal favorites and I get lost in their melodies, harmonies, and word flows–give them a listen if you haven’t seen the show or heard the songs, they’re truly worth while and help move the performance. The actors for this production did absolute justice for these songs, it was invigorating and beautiful. If you ever get to see this show, do it.
‘Til next time.