Sweeney Todd is just your average comedic/dramatic thriller about vengeance, insanity, murder and cannibalism. Yeah, as if that's a genre!
Actually, Sweeney Todd has always been one of the weirdest—and most enduring—shows ever to grace the stages of Broadway or the West End as it swings wildly between camp, comedy, drama and outright horror.
Part of the show's recipe for success (aside from the rousing book and music by Wheeler and Sondheim) is that, as time goes on, each staged version of Sweeney tries to one-up all previous iterations when it comes to blood, grue and production design. Tim Burton's film version upped the ante even more by creating a baroque bloodbath, saturated with overproduced gothic imagery and grotesque, mugging performances. Portland Center Stage's version two seasons ago turned on garden hoses of blood.
2nd Street's version of Sweeney Todd takes a different path and one that I'm grateful for. Juliah Rae's direction strips down the show to what makes a musical essential: the characters and voices. Instead of focusing on flashy stage trickery, the production brings to life the torment of these characters and the tragedy behind the silly songs and outlandish premise.
The character of Sweeney Todd is a sympathetic serial killer whose sense of justice and revenge becomes so warped by grief and rage that it ceases to matter to him who dies underneath his razor. David DaCosta's thunderous vocal range combines with a performance so subsumed with finding Sweeney's broken core that the Demon Barber of Fleet Street shows the scariest side of all: his humanity.
Lilli Ann Linford-Foreman also does something lovely with her performance of Mrs. Lovett here: she makes her sympathetic. Mrs. Lovett is a woman who makes meat pies out of her neighbors without the slightest compunction and, in every version of the show I've ever seen, no attempt is made by the actress to make the role anything other than a sideshow of tics and grotesqueries. Linford-Foreman brings to the role such quiet dignity that it changed my time-worn view of the character, which in turn made me take stock of how I experienced the entire show.
This version of Sweeney Todd is powerful from the ground up, and one of the finest productions I've seen locally in a long time. Even the company is filled with ringers that give the group numbers a weighty, massive sound that carries through the small space like thunder on a mountain.
Everyone on that stage brings something beautiful from Alex Elmaleh's exquisite falsetto as Pirelli to Erik McGinnis' heartbreaking turn as Tobias Ragg to Scott Michaelsen's haunting piano work: this production has a very deep bench.
I walked out of 2nd Street energized and in love with theater, remembering why I fell for the art form in the first place. I guess it says something about me that it took a musical about pies filled with people-meat to remind me.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber
of Fleet Street
7:30 pm, Fri-Sat, through June 28
3pm, Sunday, through June 29
2nd Street Theater, 220 NE Lafayette