A SWEENEY TODD without camp? Who knew Sondheim’s exquisite musical had so much to say about the human condition? Director Spiro Veloudos’ SWEENEY TODD (playing @ Lyric Stage through Oct. 8th) is still Grand Guignol but this Todd is human, a reflection of the sorry state of the world.
I’ve seen a passel of SWEENEY TODDs (It’s my favorite musical) and never once did I consider Todd to be anything but the bogeyman parents invoke to make naughty children behave. Never once did I connect myself emotionally with the “demon barber.” Not once did I feel he was real. The macabre material always felt like fantasy to me—which served to keep the horror at bay. The outrageous humor, too, allowed me to distance myself. Now the musical resonates way beyond Victorian England to our very own “desperate times.”
As I watched, I thought of the Innocence Project: Todd was imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. I thought about the corruption which eats through our justice system: The powerful judge in the musical has gotten away with rape and more. Even Ferguson came to mind when the parish officer instructs a policeman to clear the street and “bash” a passerby’s “head” in. And I thought about the depth of Todd’s pain, losing his whole family. When Christopher Chew as Todd discovers too late a loved one’s true identity, you cannot stop his despair from passing across the footlights and into your stomach. Chew makes Todd’s descent into madness the only path he has.
As much as Todd wants to “wish the world away,” it intrudes at every turn. He’s come home from Botany Bay to find his wife and child and instead finds that Mrs. Lovett has kept his razors all these years. Amelia Broom as Mrs. L seduces him into resuming his old profession, lies about his wife and even initiates their cannibalistic partnership. (I had always accepted them as equals before. Now I’m much more keenly aware of Mrs. L’s machinations. What a difference a fresh approach can make!)
Music director Jonathan Goldberg makes Sondheim’s glorious dissonances soar. The singing is enhanced in the intimacy of the small Lyric stage and Janie E. Howland’s black, receding, almost disappearing set piece: The chorus becomes the set, moving about in Franklin Meissner’s foggy purples and muddied reds. Rafael Jean’s dark, layered costumes mirror the hues in Meissner’s lighting.
The singing is superb, with exciting performances all around but special attention must be paid to Phil Tayler as the innocent Toby who slowly realizes that Todd is killing his customers. Tayler makes Toby heroic and that’s a significant change from most productions. Davron S. Munroe, too, makes Todd’s mountebank rival a posturing know-it-all deserving comeuppance.
Sam Simahk and Meghan LaFlam are lovely together as the lovers in peril, at the hands of Paul C. Soper’s evil judge. Every musical number reverberates but I’m still humming the judge and Todd’s “Pretty Women” and LaFlam’s bird song and Simahk’s lovely “Johanna” and marveling over the two quartets. And of course, there’s the inimitable “A Little Priest.”