Well, as you are most likely already aware, it’s that special time of year again. When summer has said farewell and autumn has arrived. When the leaves are changing color, a chill has settled in the air, and things start to go bump in the night. It is almost time for All Hallows Eve, and our local theatre scene is, as always, quite aware. Two groups are performing Shakespeare’s otherworldly tragedy Macbeth. One company I noticed is advertising Dracula Versus Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And over at the Midvale Main Street Theatre, owner and director Tammy Ross is presenting the popular musical thriller Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Getting this assignment was exciting for me. I’ve never seen Sweeney Todd, not even the Johnny Depp film version, and the Midvale Main Street Theatre was where my own theatre group (Around the Globe) did The Tempest; our most recent show. So it was an added treat to find none other than local actor Tony Porter and his lovely wife sitting in the audience as I arrived in the theatre to claim my seat. Tony played Prospero in The Tempest and going back a few years, was in a staged reading of The Fiend of Fleet Street that I was also in. Fiend is the non musical version of Sweeney Todd. So it was neat for me to see my friend and colleague there for this show. But he and his wife weren’t the only ones there. The house was packed. If not for my reserved ticket, I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able to buy one at the box office. So if you’re planning on seeing Sweeney, you may want to buy your tickets in advance.
Fifteen minutes after finding my seat, the show began. It got off to a furious start and had lots of energy from everyone on stage. I was bothered however by how loud the prerecorded music was because—even wearing microphones—many cast members struggled to be heard above it. The most notable exception to that shortcoming was Jim Dale who played the title role with masterful ease. His booming baritone could have carried over the music had it been twice as loud I’m sure, and his intense eyes were easily seen even from the back row where I sat. In his program bio, Mr. Dale writes that Sweeney Todd is his dream role, which is fitting because he’s so damn suited for the role that you could use the old cliché that he’s a Sweeney Todd sent straight from Central Casting.
Eve Speer, who played the diabolical pie maker Mrs. Lovett, was also a standout in this show. Despite an early stumble where it appeared to me she momentarily lost her breath during her first song, Ms. Speer didn’t miss a beat the rest of the night, holding her own opposite Jim Dale’s enthralling Sweeney Todd. Although obviously much younger than the role she was playing, Ms. Speer brought great energy to her darkly comic role and her accent was well done; something I can’t say for some other’s in the cast. For example, Travis Hyer who played Adolfo Pirelli gave an engaging performance of the colorful con-man, but he went from a bad Italian accent to an even worse Irish brogue. Corey Wilkey, who played Anthony Hope, was a fine singer but when speaking, I wasn’t sure if he was doing an accent or just has an unusual non-singing voice. He was also less than impressive as the heroic romantic lead. His acting left much to be desired and he was dwarfed in size by all the other men on stage. I felt he looked far too much like a small child in his sailor suit. Wilkey’s leading lady was Ashlee Brereton who did a fine job as Johanna, the beautiful yet hapless love interest to three very different men: Sweeney Todd, Anthony Hope and the corrupt Judge Turpin (played adequately by Russ McBride). In her program bio, Brereton thanked her upstairs neighbors for putting up with her “constant opera singing”. I can imagine worse nuisances than having to listen to Ms. Brereton’s well trained vocal talents. I’m sure her neighbor’s don’t mind that much.
Another cast member of note is the very impressive Katherine Smith who played the charming and energetic young street urchin Tobias Ragg. Despite her microphone fading in and out during musical numbers where she had lots of fast movements, Smith’s powerful voice greatly belied her small size and her sincere performance of Tobias was strong all through the show; especially at the end when the character delved swiftly into insanity. I’ll also mention the performance of Alex Grey who played Judge Turpin’s cruel yet also ostentatious enforcer, the Beadle. To me Grey’s Beadle lacked a real sense of physical intimidation that I think the character needed as he went around town bullying helpless citizens, but his obvious charisma was on display in such scenes as when the Beadle coerced Mrs. Lovett into an awkward but highly entertaining duet.
My favorite part of watching this show was the amazing set and deft use of the Midvale stage. Taking up almost the entirety of center stage was what I can best describe as a rotating cube with a set of wooden stairs attached to one side of it. Each side of the cube represented a different location, which would be revealed to the audience quickly as cast members rotated the cube with ease; taking us from London streets to a piano parlor to the infamous pie shop and even down into meat locker below the shop. On the top of the cube was where Sweeney Todd’s nefarious barbershop of horrors was setup. I couldn’t help but feel a thrill each time Sweeney Todd murdered an unsuspecting customer and they slid off the chair—falling through a trapdoor built into the top of the cube. I was even envious of the actors who got to experience the fall from the deadly chair. From a performer’s perspective it looked like great fun; reminding me of a time when I was tossed into the orchestra pit as part of the choreography for my high school’s production of Lil’ Abner my junior year.
My greatest complaint about the show is something that neither the cast nor the crew could have prevented, and it may be something only I am affected with. Usually when I see a musical, I enjoy hearing the songs over and over in my head for days to come following the performance, but with Sweeney Todd this has not happened for me—even as I write this review two days later. I can remember seeing the cast moving around and singing songs nearly non-stop from open to close, but not a single melody or verse of lyrics has replayed itself in my mind since I walked out of the theatre after the show last Friday night. I know that Stephen Sondheim is a beloved composer, adored by millions of musical fans the world over, but this being my first experience with his work, I am underwhelmed by his music which all sounded pretty much the same to me and has failed to stay with me as I feel all great music should. Perhaps I should listen to the soundtrack again and see if my mind can be changed, but I doubt it.
As I always do, I paid close attention to the audience’s response and they seemed to me to really enjoy the show. It is lively, fast paced and rich with dark humor, and if you want to watch a season appropriate show featuring a dedicated cast, give Sweeny Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street a chance.
Sweeny Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street runs tonight (Halloween!) and then every Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening at 7 PM until November 12th. The Midvale Main Street Theatre is located at 7711 South Main Street in Midvale, Utah. For tickets and more info you can call the box office at 801-566-0596 or find them online at www.midvaletheatre.com
And on a final note: whomever is in charge of Quick Wits, if you’re going to let your large and enthusiastic audiences into the Midvale Theatre before the main stage show is over, please find a way to keep them quiet until the play is over. It is an unfortunate distraction to those paying patrons inside theatre to hear dozens of loud, excited people talking and shouting in the lobby behind them. Thank you for indulging my little rant.