Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, opened last weekend at Portland Center Stage and plays through October 21st. The music is by that superb composer, Stephen Sondheim. It is directed by PCS's, Artistic Director, Chris Coleman.
You should be warned, this play is not for the squeamish nor faint-of-heart. It deals with, in fairly graphic ways, murder-most-foul (slitting of throats), cannibalism, madness, and other forms of disagreeable lifestyles. It even had the audience hiding their heads at times and vocalizing, “oh,no” at one point.
But, that being said, it still has a strong musical score but a somewhat familiar story of revenge, albeit, rather bloody. Sweeney Todd (Aloysius Gigl), away at sea for years, returns to London to seek revenge on those who had driven his wife mad and kidnapped his daughter. He opens a barber shop above a tavern that makes and sells “the worst (meat) pies in London,” run by Mrs. Lovett (Gretchen Rumbaugh).
They strike up a union to exploit their unique “talents” for the benefit of both of them. Mr. Todd will be able to extract his revenge through very close shaves in his shop and Mrs. Lovett will improve the quality of her meat pies. I think you get the idea…
The story also involves finding his daughter, Johanna (Rita Markova), who has allied herself with his best friend, Anthony (Louis Hobson). Johanna is also the ward of his sworn enemy, Judge Turpin (Matthew Allan Smith), who lusts after the girl. And Mrs. Lovett has found a simple, but a little too curious soul, Toby (Eric Little), as a helper. Into this mix are the various inhabitants of the underbelly of London.
The story borders on more of an opera or operetta, than a musical, as much of the dialogue is sung. The best of these are the amusing “The Worst Pies In London,” the odd ditty “Pretty Women,” and the haunting “Johanna.” But the highlight for me was, “A Little Priest,” a lengthy, but very funny song, embodying in puns, what some of the many professions might express about their experience as victims.
The set is wonderfully rendered by William Bloodgood, and is designed in such a way that the locations are quickly changed, giving an immediacy to the flow of the story. The orchestra, under Rick Lewis, is terrific in tackling a very difficult score. And the trick chair is a morbid delight. The direction, by Mr. Coleman, is quick-paced and adds to the excitement of the story, giving an adrenaline rush to the audience’s sensitivities.
The Chorus in this production is quite splendid. Mr. Gigl, as Sweeney, has the right chiseled looks and strong voice that this part demands. The complexities of the character shine through, as he struggles with conflicting emotions. Mr. Little, as Toby, is wonderfully naïve and sinister in the role. And, in the small, but crucial role, as the Beggar Woman, Michele Ragusa, will shift your feelings for her from humor to pity. Well done, Ms. Ragusa.
But the crowning performance is Gretchen Rumbaugh as Mrs. Lovett. She is easily equal to the Tony-winning, Angela Landsbury, who originated it on Broadway. Exploring the range from humor, to pathos, to ghoulishness and even to a creepy sort of love, Ms. Rumbaugh does it with ease. And her command of the music and songs is outstanding! I can see an award for this performance in her future.
This would probably be rated R, mainly for the language and violence. For further information on PCS go to www.pcs.org or call 503-445-3700 for tickets. Tell them Dennis sent you!