I’ve seen bloodier stagings of Sweeney Todd than the current incarnation from Kokandy Productions at the Chopin Theatre’s downstairs space, directed and choreographed by Derek Van Barham. I’ve seen more polished versions of Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and Hugh Wheeler’s (book) magnum opus.
But I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a Sweeney Todd that so ruthlessly depicts the darkness and corruption of the world that surrounds us. It’s evident in the opening number: Barber Sweeney Todd (Kevin Webb) returns to London after being falsely imprisoned for decades. He hopes to reunite with his beloved wife Lucy and his daughter, Johanna (Chamaya Moody). He quickly learns his hopes were in vain. Lucy poisoned herself after being raped by Judge Turpin (Christopher Johnson), the same judge that sent Sweeney to prison. The judge took the baby, now a teenager, and plans to wed her.
Sweeney Todd Through 11/6: Wed-Sat 7 PM, Sun 5 PM; also Mon 10/24, 7 PM (industry night), no performance Wed 10/5, Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division, kokandyproductions.com, $40, $30 students/seniors, limited $15 students/artists each performance
London, as Sweeney sings, is a cesspit of cruelty and corruption, as is the world entire. It’s a quasi-duet that also has young sailor Anthony (Ryan Stajmiger), praising the wonders of the world and the gleaming possibilities within the marvels of the great city. In one song, Sondheim lays out two diametrically opposed views of the world, and the former holds sway. This is a story of despair curdled into violence. The closest thing to happiness comes from the industrious Mrs. Lovett (Caitlin Jackson), who makes a killing making meat pies with human meat sourced from Sweeney’s customers, falling more giddily in love as she goes.
Van Barham has overlaid an interesting concept on Sweeney Todd. This demon barber is plagued by demons literally embodied in both the choreo and in G “Max” Maxin IV’s kinetic lighting design. The latter is twitchy as a haunted-house strobe at times, overwhelming waves of red at others. As to the former: When Sweeney is in his head planning his vengeance, he’s twitchy as an electrical wire dangling in a storm, surrounded by a lurching, zombie-like chorus. This is a portrayal of someone who would do anything to escape their own inner torment, but who knows that even if they could, the demons of the outside world will devour them regardless.
The cast holds up frames as Sweeney unleashes his inner torment by slashing the throats of his customers, demanding the entire audience contemplate their own inner (or outer) Sweeney, as do the lyrics with Sondheim’s brilliant brutality:
No one can help, nothing can hide you / Isn’t that Sweeney there beside you?
No one is spared. Usually there’s a scene where Sweeney decides against killing one of his customers because he sees the man has a small child and loving wife. Van Barham has cut it.
The production uses minimal props. Sweeney’s razor, for example, doesn’t show up until the very final moments, and he’s not the one looking at it in wonder. There’s no fancy barber chair shooting bodies down to the grinder in Maxin’s minimalist set, which is a mostly bare rotating platform. Sweeney’s barber chair is a lightly upholstered piece that looks like it came from a thrift-store dining set. And make no mistake. You need someone who reads older than mid-20s to play Judge Turpin. Scrawling crow’s feet on a young person’s face is not a solution.
Miscasting aside, there is more than enough to recommend this Sweeney. Webb brings a torrent of torment to every well-executed note and refrain, ably intensified by music director Nick Sula’s bloody good micro-orchestra.
Of paramount importance: Jackson’s Mrs. Lovett is a frowsy delight. Her carefully calibrated, bone-dry gallows humor and pragmatic optimism (when there’s a meat shortage on, cats are not the answer) offer both comic relief and—crucially—a foil to Sweeney Todd’s lethal wall of cynicism.