Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd at Diamond Lil’s for a thrilling and unique production of this dark musical. Sweeney Todd was made famous with the recent movie version directed by Tim Burton that starred Johnny Depp. This Broadway musical is one of composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s most famous works. It opened on Broadway in 1979 and won 8 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and additionally has had two Broadway revivals. Sweeney Todd is set in London in 1846 and tells the story of Benjamin Barker, a barber that returns to London to seek revenge after the corrupt judge had banished him many years before and stolen his wife and family from him. Sweeney teams up with Mrs. Lovett who owns a pie shop below the old barber shop on Fleet Street where Sweeney use to work as a barber. Together they concoct a scheme where Sweeney slits the throats of visitors to his barbershop and sends them down a chute to Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop below. She uses the dead bodies to make meat pies, which makes her shop become the most famous in London, stating that she makes them out of “an old family recipe mainly made of herbs.”
From the moment that I walked into the restaurant, I knew I was in for a treat. Diamond Lil’s provides an excellent dinner on the main level. At the end of dinner, an usher leads the audience up the stairs to the second level where the show begins. The old restaurant provides an ambiance perfect for the show with old wood floors and ceilings that transport the audience back to 19th century London. The audience is seated in the dark while listening to the old pipe organ play creepy music and then appears Mr. Fogg, played by Josh Astle, to welcome the audience to the show. Mr. Astle was one of my favorite actors of the show—man was he creepy! The darkly lit room provided just enough light to make out his pale face and zombie or “ghost like” costume and his intense eyes added to his opening speech that was spoken with a hushed cockney accent. And then the show begins! On cue, enters all the various cast members of the show, as if rising from the grave to tell the story of Sweeney Todd. As the opening number begins, the cast begins moving ever so slowly and intensely focused, meandering through the audience and entering through all different spaces throughout the house, chanting Sweeney! Sweeney! Sweeney! And then Sweeney’s spirit is summoned in to begin the tale.
I was very impressed with the directing style and concept created with this production. The audience was very involved with the show, and the actors frequently interacted with the audience members in a way that made them feel that they were in the world experiencing the story alongside the actors. This worked very effectively and kept me engaged the entire night. The director (Bruce Craven) and producer (Skye Dahlstrom) created a very intimate feel to the show, where the audience was in the center and the actors performed for them on all sides. There were no microphones and the actors could speak in a very conversational style reminiscent of watching a film. Because the audience was only a few feet away from the actors at all times, the actors could make subtle choices that gave them a natural and believable feel, making them all that more real and creepy.
Director Craven did a phenomenal job of utilizing the small space with an excellent use of levels, creating interesting pictures, and effectively staging split scenes. Sometimes even three scenes were on at once, though never once did the scenes detract from the main action going on. Rather than freezing the action, the actors continued to interact within their scene making small choices within the context of the action occurring. I really liked this technique. I especially liked the staging of “Poor Thing” and how he used the space in the storytelling—it was very interesting and disturbing to watch. In plays, a lot of days and time are covered in a few short hours. So scenes don’t ever really start or end, rather we get quick glimpses and clips of what is occurring over days or weeks to follow the story. Craven did a nice job of creating this feel to the show, where action began and continued before and after the lines or scene started or finished, which made for very nice transitions between the various scenes and made the storytelling clear and easy to follow.
I was also impressed with the excellent handling of the dialect. Usually productions suffer from inconsistencies and certain actors that struggle. Not in this production, every actor mastered both the standard British or cockney accents with exact precision. Even in the singing, the accents didn’t slip. This is no small feat!
If you came to see Sweeney Todd for no other reason than to see Sky Dahlstrom’s performance as Mrs. Lovett you would not be disappointed. This is probably the strongest performance in this role that I have seen; even in comparing her with Patti Lupone’s portrayal in the Broadway revival I saw a few years back. She was so grounded in the character and filled each beat with clear choices that gave much depth and dimension to the role. Her thought process, objectives and intentions were always very clear. Her strong dance background helped her to be fully engaged in the character physically and she acted with her entire body. Her songs seemed to spring from an internal place and she listened and responded so well to the other actors on stage. I also really like how she kept her performance fresh and trusted her instincts. I especially liked all the little bits she added when interacting with the guests at the restaurant that made it real, such as filler words like “let go” when a guest was holding on to a cup too long, or “not you” when she was inviting the guests back the next day as she was talking to a drunk that was hitting on her. These choices gave a level of believability and honesty to each of her scenes. Her duet with Sweeney “A Little Priest” was especially good and gave a solid ending to Act One.
Joey Branca performed an excellent Anthony. He had a youthful energy and smile that brought a believable innocence to the role, and provided a nice contrast to the other dark characters. Morgan Richards was also very successful as Johanna with a beautiful Soprano voice that soared in “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” and a sincere vulnerability that added some great depth to this role. Richards and Branca had great chemistry that brought a level of pureness and goodness in the dark musical.
I was also very impressed with Karllen McDonald’s portrayal of the Beggar Woman. This is no easy role to pull off but Ms. McDonald expertly performed it with ease. She made strong choices throughout the evening and handled the vocal demands and complex rhythms with perfection. She was a delight to see in each scene.
Bruce Craven as Judge Turpin, who also directed the show, played the dark and menacing Judge and guardian of Johanna. Craven usually plays the “nice guy” and it was fun to see him venture into this role. I liked the bold choice of his performing “Johanna” and him whipping himself as he attempts to cure himself of his lustful feelings towards his stepdaughter, Johanna. This number is often cut from the show, but it adds so much in understanding Judge Turpin, and makes him all that much more disturbing, so I am glad they kept it in. Judge Turpin’s sidekick, Dallon Thorup as the Beadle, was very strange and had a bizarre energy about him (in a good way), which added to the mystery and darkness of the show.
I liked Brian Dourus as the principal character Sweeney. He had some nice moments and strong scenes, particularly those with Mrs. Lovett and his solo “Epiphany” was excellently done. However, I wanted more from him. His objective was not always clear and I wanted greater depth from him. He has a nice voice, but this role was a bit low for him (as it is for most people) and in his lower register it was sometimes difficult to hear his lines. I warmed up to him as the show progressed, but early in Act I, I wanted stronger choices, particularly in his first scene with Anthony. I had trouble understanding their relationship. I wanted a bit more danger from him in general—I wanted to see more of a bi-polar thing going on where he could snap at any time and see more dramatic swings. I also wanted a stronger moment when he discovers an important realization in the final scene of the show (which I won’t reveal to those who haven’t seen the show). Over all he delivered a solid performance, but I wanted greater clarity in his thought process and to see these thoughts occurring in the moment to motivate his choices (which Mrs. Lovett did expertly).
The ensemble was very strong and added so much to the production, and really made this not only a good production but a great one! I especially liked how well they moved on stage and the abstract feel they created to the show. They frequently moved in and out of the shadows and you never knew when they would appear or where they would pop out from next. “City on Fire” and the Fog’s Asylum scene were very well done and particularly distributing. The girls rocking back and forth in the asylum were very convincing and creeped me out!
A couple directing choices that didn’t work for me was the choice to turn the song “Kiss Me” between Johanna and Anthony into a spoken scene. I am confident that Branca and Richards could have performed this excellently and it didn’t work as well as a scene. Though they gave a valiant effort, the dialogue just wasn’t very natural as a scene and seemed out of place. Plus I think it’s a great song and missed hearing it. Another small adjustment is I would have liked the whistles in Act II to grow in intensity as the act progressed, they were too quiet and didn’t have the “shock effect” I wanted.
I also don’t know why the song “God that’s Good” was changed to “Mmmm that’s good”. I suppose to censor it for a Utah audience, but this wasn’t necessary and came across a bit cheesy and the author and production company does not give rights for censorship of their material without permission (which I found to be very strange that MTI was not listed anywhere in the program, as they hold the rights to this production, and I know that there are strict requirements for crediting MTI when the show is produced and nowhere did they properly credit even the author, and I think Stephen Sondheim at least deserved to have his name in the program), but that’s between them and Music Theatre International I suppose.
Christopher Pederson as Pirelli added much comedy to the show and handled the vocal demands of the part very well. Though he was not very grounded in the role and came across rather one-dimensional. He was too sporadic with his focus to follow and so I didn’t fully believe his choices or relationships with the other characters. He encompassed the shape of the part, but needed to go deeper, and make sure he was still making real choices and listening to the other actors on stage.
Drew Olson as Tobias Ragg has a promising career ahead of him, especially as he is only thirteen years old. He handled the dialect very well and has great instincts. He struggled a bit with some of the vocal solos, but these would be challenging for even adult actors. He has a lot of potential for such a young actor and gave a strong performance.
A couple last things that are worth mentioning include the phenomenal costuming and design work. The costuming and makeup added much to the show. There was so much detail in the design and creation of each character that was visually very stimulating and aided in the storytelling. I also appreciated the well-created program and design work on the company’s website. It was professionally done and really told a lot about the show. I also liked the lighting design and how it accented the theme of the show with the dimly lit stage the entire night and the shadows that emerged, coupled with real fog and smoke, made for some interesting scenes.
If you get to see one show this month, this is the perfect one for Halloween. It is a well written script with phenomenal music and performed with talented actors and good directing. In spite of all the slit throats and disturbing subject matter, there is also a solid moral lesson in Sweeney Todd. It teaches what path vengeance and revenge will ultimately lead to and how it can consume and destroy one’s soul. This beats a haunted house any day!
Skye’s the Limit Productions presents “Sweeney Todd”, performing Monday, October 29th through Saturday, November 3rd at Diamond Lil’s Restaurant. Tickets are available at their website: www.sweeneytoddutah.com.