REVIEW: "Sweeney Todd" – Academy for the Performing Arts, Huntington Beach
Updated: Jan 15
This ‘Sweeney Todd’ Really Gets In Your Face
A weathered vessel sails into 19th century London's bleak and dreary harbor carrying a hollow-eyed man. Fifteen years earlier, he was a successful barber named Benjamin Barker with a young family and a happy existence. But that was all stolen from him by the powerful Judge Turpin (Kole Williamson) who coveted his beautiful wife and had him falsely sent to an Australian prison.
The man returning to London is no longer the naive Benjamin Barker. This man has been charred by the fires of hatred and now all but chokes on his lust for revenge. This man now calls himself ... Sweeney Todd (Brennan Eckberg).
Sweeney burns afresh with rage and meets the opportunistic Mrs. Lovett (Jaedynn Latter) who impulsively proceeds to help him in his quest for vengeance. The lonely baker woman long ago hid a secret love for the handsome barber, so she recognizes him beneath his gaunt visage and tells him of his wife Lucy's (Payton Moore as the Beggar Woman, alternating with Grace Houchen and Delaney Blair) death by poison and his daughter Johanna's submissive captivity under the lustful eye of the judge. After Turpin had ravished then-Barker’s wife, destroying her life, the girl Johanna (Olivia Aniceto) had grown up to become the judge's ward and prisoner.
Offering Sweeney Todd to take up residence above the disgusting pie shop, Mrs. Lovett returns his precious silver-handled razors that she has kept for him all these years. These strange bedfellows are all in now (“My Friends”), and together they spread news of a brilliant new barber on the streets of London in hopes of luring the judge to Sweeney's chair. But although Mrs. Lovett is now the barber’s new inamorata, her persistent fantasy is that she and Sweeney will someday leave this foreboding place and settle by the seaside (“By The Sea”). Not Pygmalion likely!
It must be said that this Academy for the Performing Arts’ deftly executed stunt of a show, which originated in London, delivers fully on its ingenious, yet tragic declaration that revenge is a powerful evil that consumes and destroys everything it touches.
As directed by “Arts Educator of the Year” Tim Nelson (also the Music Director), who helms APA’s quarterdeck tightly, this latest version of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s 1979 musical macabre puts its audience within throat-slashing distance of its sociopathic title character.
That means you’ll have the opportunity to look straight into the eyes of Mr. Todd, eyes that widen to expose 360 bulging degrees of whiteness when he’s especially excited. Portrayed by Mr. Eckberg at this performance (played alternately by Patrick McCormick) like an animated refugee from Madame Tussauds’ Chamber of Horrors, with brooding manner, a lock of sweeping hair cast over one eye menacingly, this Sweeney has a habit of regularly getting into the face of the customers at the modest eating establishment run by his newfound friend, accomplice and possible future victim, Mrs. Lovett (Ms. Latter/Played alternately by Jillian Ponchak and Daisy Tye).
But so deep is his rage that he makes an architectural improvement: a sliding chute that will drop his customers straight into the basement after he slits their throats, so Mrs. Lovett can cut them up and bake them into her pies. Now she’s doing hand over fist business over her competition, offering the meatiest and most succulent meat pies in London; and sometimes satisfied customers even go upstairs for a haircut and a quick recycling.
It goes without saying that the pies for sale are the plat du jour, without a vegetarian option. And any concession to those possessing an inflated ego or unwarranted sense of entitlement within London’s populace are soundly sneered upon by our vengeful convict, promptly converting those tortfeasors into carcasses for Mrs. Lovett’s fine cuisine…and her loyal customers.
Those customers are you. The APA Studio Blackbox Theater has been reinvented as a dingy pie shop where a hungry city dweller might pick up a cheap meal. Communal dining tables – sturdy tables and chairs in which you can sit and dine in peace some days, in pieces in others – have been set up in front of a bar and sinister staircase, which serve as the set’s focal area.
While I did partake of this crusty fare at the fundraiser benefit auction a few steps away, it seems safe to say that those taking in the sights and sounds thereafter with sensitive interiors may find themselves with some slight indigestion (although I may already be an accidental humanitarian myself by now). This “Sweeney” may also raise your pulse rate. How could it not when a cleaver-wielding man leaps with pantherine ease onto the center of your table?
"Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" smacks its lips at the prospect of such a sight, and so it should. As the bloodiest musical in stage history, it isn't a jolly romp at all, but a dark revenge tragedy with heartbreak, mayhem and bloody good meat pies. Basically, a Mario Bava gorefest with ballads. To an unusual degree, "Sweeney Todd" works not only as a musical thriller but also on a quasi-realistic level, combining favorite elements of the genre together: the fantastic, the ghoulish, the bizarre, the unspeakable, the romantic and in Mr. Eckberg’s case (who played Piangi in last season’s “Phantom of the Opera”), a perfect instrument.
The character of Sweeney Todd had its origins in 1846 Victorian pop fiction (known as penny dreadfuls back then) in a story called "The String of Pearls," which featured as its principal villain a certain murderous barber called Sweeney Todd. The story proved instantly popular and was turned into a play before the ending had even been revealed in print. By the 1870s, Sweeney Todd was an infamous character to most Victorians, and practically all the plot elements in that story were used in Sondheim’s musical. “Sweeney Todd” opened on Broadway in 1979, winning the Tony Award for Best Musical, having had numerous revivals as well as a later film adaptation by Tim Burton, which starred Johnny Depp.
“He kept a shop in London Town of fancy clients and good renown. And what if none of their souls were saved? They went to their maker impeccably shaved.” Surprisingly, there is an exhilaration in the very fiber of the play, because its life force is so strong. Its heroes, or I should say anti-heroes, have been wounded to the quick, its villains are vile and heartless, and they all play on a stage that rules out decency and mercy. The acting is so good that it enlists us totally in the sordid story, a feast for the eyes and the imagination, which even contains a great deal of humor – gut churning humor, to be sure.
Director Nelson fashions his musical in what can almost be described as an intimate style. The large ensemble effectively depicts Londoners parading and dancing in the London squares, but in close proximity. There is an implied London of narrow alleys, streets shadowed by overhangs and close secrets, although only the pie shop set is visible.
The set is intricately built and designed by Chris Caputo. The Assistant to Director Nelson is Katy Houchen, and some incredible Choreography is designed by Diane Makas, with much assistance by Jennifer Simpson-Matthews and Amanda Hinchee. Technical Direction is by Josh Behrens, and Costume Direction is from Carole Zelinger with assistance from Quinn Ewing and Savvy Freshwater. Props are handled by Trish Merrill and Diana Arroyo and Lighting Design is by Kaitlyn Campbell, who also serves as Stage Manager. The show’s production assistant is Sophia Hoffman.
There are also star turns by many cast members, such as that performed by Sean Kato (alternately played by Jack Borenstein) in an amazing portrayal of young, idealistic midshipman Anthony Hope, the other protagonist in the story, who once saved Sweeney’s life aboard the ship, and who falls madly in love with Johanna. "There's a girl who needs my help!" And he takes that duty very seriously, refusing to be deterred by beatings, threats or having her shipped off to an insane asylum once she makes it clear that she wants him to help her. Mr. Kato’s obvious innocence in the role is pronounced and in sharp contrast to the villainous theme of the plotline.
Another outstanding role was Josh Outman as the flamboyant rival Italian barber Pirelli (alternately played by Scottie Richard), a street mountebank who proclaims himself to be king of the barbers, and who sells a "miracle elixir" that is exposed by Sweeney as an arrant fraud. And once again, there is Mr. Williamson as the diabolical, corrupt Judge Turpin (alternately played by Will Logan). Basically the judge is a dog-kicking machine. Having an innocent barber transported for life so you can get at his wife? Check. Tricking said wife into coming to your mansion where you have a wild party in progress so you can rape her? Check.
Meanwhile, the childlike, tragically subverted Tobias, or Toby (Max Hardy, alternating with Kyler Naef), taking a shine to Mrs. Lovett, blonde locks and winsome looks notwithstanding, has talent best evidenced in the number, "Not While I'm Around," a pledge to protect the ignoble baker from all harm. Formerly Pirelli’s assistant, now chief meat-grinder, Toby seems to be in many productions labeled as a slightly developmentally disabled young adult, but in this case I believe it was more from a youthful search for parental substitute.
Exceptional work also was by the invaluable Nick Daniel as the judge’s minion, Beadle Bamford (alternately played by Brandon Duncan). In contradistinction with Judge Turpin's eldritch bass, the Beadle is a countertenor, and hits some extremely impressive notes in the "Kiss Me/Ladies in Their Sensitivities” quartet and "Parlour Songs." In fact, during the finale reprise of "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," I’m reasonably sure I heard him singing in full falsetto alongside Pirelli's tenor. The result was chilling. After which, our Sweeney escorts Beadle Bamford upstairs to his parlor for a shave and "a splash of bay rum." Or so he thinks.
Shifting again to Toby (Mr. Hardy, alternating with Kyler Naef) in the bake house, he discovers a black human hair and a bit of finger nail in a meat pie he's been eating, quickly runs to the door of the bake house, finds it locked, and begins pounding on it and yelling for Mrs. Lovett to let him out. Like I said…chilling.
Ms. Aniceto, playing the chaste,16-year old Victorian dream girl Johanna (alternately played by Rachel Bronder and Novalee Smedley) also proves well-conceived, especially in her exquisite canticles. As she delivers the patchwork ballad “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” with a twittering operatic skittishness that adroitly signals her years of dominion and abuse, there is every reason to believe a nervous breakdown may be ahead. Unfortunately, the blossoming Johanna is now being looked upon by her captor with the same hungry eyes in which he once looked upon her mother.
In the dance sequences, Lucy is played by Kaia Fister, alternating with Katy Houchen and Cora Sjogren. Additional featured singers include Lily Horns, Kaia Fister, Kenzie Riddle, Cora Sjogren, Katy Houchen, Gracie Hill, Breea Hayes, Quinn Ewing, Irene Emahiser, Drew Delallana, Sheriden Reineck, Rachel Houchen, Will Logan, Skyler Ramon and Kole Williamson. Mr. Fogg is portrayed by Ethan Ahistrom; Shaving Clients are Kevin Riley and Tyler Green. The Father is Skyler Ramon; Daughter is Paige O’Neal and the Bird Sellers are Seth Christ and Mason Creyaufmiller. A multitude of specialty ensemble players as well as pre-show performers added prodigiously to the show’s depth and dimension representing seldom-found virtuosity and skill.
With exceptional acting chops and exquisitely calculated timing and phrasing, hard-core Sondheim fans, usually an exacting and combative lot, will find this to be one of the most exciting and innovative Sweeney Todd to date. In this case, applying brilliant direction, the show rises to masterfully gutsy levels, making the synchronized percussive use of cutlery into an art form.
“Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” plays in APA’s Studio Blackbox through January 19th, ending with this Sunday’s matinee. For ticket information, please see https://www.hbapa.org/see
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report