Delightfully Macabre, Fiendishly Marvelous!
One person's murderous urge is another's meat market. Such is the grisly tale of Stephen Sondheim's “Sweeney Todd,” the demon barber of Fleet Street. The deliciously twisted, Tony Award-winning 1979 dark musical presented recently at La Habra High School about a man and his razor gives a whole new meaning to retail supply and demand. Directed by Brian Johnson and Musically Directed by Greg Haake, this 71st Guild production of La Habra Theater at Pitlockry Hall played from February 9th through the 24th to sell-out crowds and featured a Love-It Pop-Up Pie Shop ingeniously constructed by Honors students at the school which immersed the audience in a completely new wraparound theatrical experience.
Only when the door shuts and the room darkens, interrupted by the door suddenly opening again in a cloud of fog and lights, will you understand, with perhaps a shudder of anticipation, that you are not just potential observers of the story but also potential ingredients. The living set the audience created in that pie shop topped the list as the most frightening Sweeney Todd I’ve seen. The action surrounds and encompasses you. At times, the wild-eyed Todd himself (Zach Fogel), will walk right by you in the tight quarters, putting you within throat-slashing distance of its sociopathic title character.
Based on the ghoulish Victorian "penny dreadful" novels starring the sinister stylist, the story of Sweeney Todd was adapted in the 1970s by Christopher Bond as a drama, only to finally achieve its full emotional height by way of Sondheim's epic score. Propelled by the music and lyrics and a book by Hugh Wheeler, the show captured eight Tony Awards in 1979 including Best Musical.
Songs, such as “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” “Poor Thing,” “Johanna,” “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir,” ”Pretty Women,” “Epiphany,” the comical “A Little Priest” and “Not While I’m Around” are highlights. The show has become one of his most frequently performed on all levels ranging from expurgated school productions to full-scale professional theatres.
As the story unfolds, Sweeney Todd, AKA barber Benjamin Barker, has been ruined by Judge Turpin (Bryan Connolly), who coveted his wife Lucy and stole her away by banishing Barker to Botany Bay for life. But Barker, now under the cloak of a new name, Sweeney Todd, returns to London with the help of Anthony Hope, a young, good-natured sailor he befriends. Todd has one overwhelming yearning aside from escape: revenge.
He sets up a barbershop over Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop – known for making the worst pies in London. She is aware of Todd’s past and tells him that Lucy had taken poison and their daughter Johanna was adopted by the Judge, becoming his ward. His quest for retribution is intensified. Little does he know that Mrs. Lovett has her own designs on him, hoping they will ultimately become lovers and has twisted the truth to her own advantage.
Todd challenges Adolfo Pirelli (Hannah Rhode), who claims to be “the king of the barbers, the barber of kings,” to a contest to inveigle the Judge into his shop. Ultimately, Pirelli becomes the first of Todd’s victims and the main ingredient in one of Mrs. Lovett’s new, much celebrated “meat pies.” Judge Turpin’s attention to Johanna turns from regarding her as his ward to wanting her for his wife. Anthony, the young sailor, has developed an intense love interest in Johanna as well.
Enter Beadle Bamford (Joshua Garberg), an opportunist who more or less aids Judge Turpin, and does mostly everything he tells him to. Beadle was the one who ordered the police to arrest Benjamin Barker on false charges issued by Judge Turpin. He was also the one who invited Lucy to Judge Turpin's ball where she was soon drugged and taken advantage of by Judge Turpin which drove her to attempt suicide by poisoning. He is one of the people Sweeney Todd targets to kill. Unbeknownst to Todd, Lucy now wanders as a beggar woman (Mercy Thornton). Meanwhile, Mrs. Lovett and Todd are grinding people from all walks of life as their pie enterprise flourishes.
These story lines converge with the death of many of the major characters, sparing the young lovers – Anthony and Johanna – and Tobias Ragg (Veronica McFarlane), Pirelli’s assistant who is devoted to Mrs. Lovett.
Sweeney Todd is a story full of pain and rage, thwarted love and broken dreams. At journey’s end, Todd will be cradling the limp body of his beloved wife with wrenching grief as he mistakenly takes her life too. In between, we’ll see numerous moments of tender regard as he recalls the world he’s lost.
The cast was faultless, and could very easily be mistaken for professional theatre. One of the sweetest vocalists selected for the part of Johanna was Charlie Leonard, who brings a gentle and lyrical tone into her songs and ensembles. As her swain, Anthony Hope, we were offered the virile Miles Henry, whose voice blended with Ms. Leonard’s beautifully. Bryan Connolly’s Judge Turpin also sang with a strong baritone quality that is deceptively resonant in the lower register. Justine Sombilon played the quirky Mrs. Lovett, with a wicked smile and a raucous musical delivery all her own. And as the man she secretly loves, Sweeney himself, we were offered versatile actor Zach Foley in an unforgettable performance, who begins the play looking sane and ends it at the opposite end of the spectrum.
The ensemble created an ominous atmosphere with their voices, and deserves much praise in their supportive roles. The show was double cast as well, with some performance dates featuring teachers, vocal coaches, and school personnel in the starring roles. Hats off to the actors, technical crews and directors for an excellent portrayal of this dark emotional tale.