e shaved the faces of gentlemen, who never thereafter were heard of again… we’re told (or maybe that should be ‘cautioned’) during the opening moments of “Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street”. Now, “One More Productions”—the residence production company at the landmark “Gem Theatre” in Garden Grove California is ringing in the Halloween Season in spine-tingling splendor with this, Composer Stephen Sondheim and Book-writer Hugh Wheelers’ musical masterpiece of murder, mayhem and meat pies! Regarded as one of Sondheim’s best works ever, this Tony-Award Winning re-telling of the classic tale of a wronged barber in 19th Century England unfolds as our Hero (or better put “Anti-Hero”) returns to his old stomping grounds in the Fleet Street area of old London Town after fifteen years of being ‘transported’ to Australia’s infamous “Botany Bay” penal colony on a trumped-up charge. Seeking vengeance on those he feels are responsible for his misfortunes—chiefly (at first) one “Judge Turpin” and his equally mendacious “Beadle”, he teams up with a twisted Pie shop owner named “Mrs. Lovett” who bakes “the worst pies in London”. This version of the old story (which dates back, in one form or another to the mid-eighteenth century) is taken from a play by Christopher Bond, and for the uninitiated out there, the result is a patently odd—but riveting—blending that could be described along the lines of “Gilbert And Sullivan” were their work re-envisioned through the eyes of John Carpenter or Tobe Hooper! Yet it’s also safe to say that without this seminal work of “Grand Guignol” theater”, there probably wouldn’t be any musicalizations of “Phantom Of The Opera”, “Jekyll & Hyde” “The Hunchback Of Notre Dame” or even lighter fare like “Little Shop Of Horrors” or “Young Frankenstein”.
The stalwart and sublimely talented ensemble are like the wheels that propel this formidable engine forward. They demonstrate some adept choral work immediately with “The Ballad Of Sweeney Todd” wherein many emerge appearing like the Victorian era’s answer to “The Walking Dead”–some shell-shocked, others seething with intensity. Another winning group endeavor is “The Letter”, as members of the chorus appear wraith-like out of the shadows to convey (via the words of a missive he is sending to Judge Turpin) Sweeney’s secret plan to finally get his daughter back and exact revenge on that corrupt Jurist who destroyed his life. Immediately following, their “City On Fire” stunningly sneaks up on you as the “street denizens” of the previous sequence suddenly transmogrify into the maniacs of “Fogg’s Asylum”. More a frenzied chant than a song, this underscores the show’s rapid-fire climax as they eerily continue to incant while the calamitous events begin to occur at staggering speed until we’re forebodingly reminded: “To seek revenge may lead to Hell, but everyone does it–and seldom as well!”
In the titular role, David Stoneman is nothing less than striking as “Sweeney Todd”. Unveiled in a wash of stark red light at the climax of the opening number: “The Ballad Of Sweeney Todd”, right from his introductory notes one is struck (and amazed) by his deep resonant baritone voice and commanding stage presence. Immediately following, you can practically feel the barely contained anguish as he recounts to his young rescuer, a sailor named Anthony Hope, the story of the man he used to be ( “There was a barber and his wife and she was beautiful” he sings ruefully; “A foolish barber and his wife—she was his reason and his life and she was beautiful! And she was virtuous! And he was…naïve.”) Then his “Song To The Razors (My Friends)” is forceful yet entrancing as “Sweeney” reconnects with the instruments of both his trade and his eventual retribution, but it’s Stoneman’s extraordinary handling of Todd’s “Epiphany”, as he gives full vent to the Barber’s thunderous rage and frustration that borders on demented fury after having missed the chance to bring his nemeses to a swift end, that itself is profound (as is the colossal pain behind it.) Wisely though, the Actor expresses it precisely where it belongs: in and through the notes, lyrics, and musical phrases, making for some genuinely electrifying theater! Mrs. Lovett is heard from–the voice of cold, amoral and downright gruesome reasoning. As “Mrs. Lovett”, Beth Hansen triumphantly returns to “The Gem Theatre” stage providing a more well-rounded take on the character, striking a refreshing balance between the manic “over the top” turn that Angela Lansbury made famous when she created the role, and the frequently laconic, near-deadpan portrait offered by Helena Bonham Carter in the Academy Award nominated 2007 Big Screen Adaptation. Hansen is terrific with the numerous comical moments, throwing off the gag lines with great finesse and simplicity. She quickly makes her mark as Sweeney’s soon-to-be accomplice with her introductory’ “The Worst Pies In London” also laudably detailing the pitiable “fates” of Todd’s wife and child after he was deported. Just as significantly, soon after she lends “Wait” a deeper psychological resonance. Flush with subtle longing and finely stifled hope although on the face of it, she’s advising Todd to take his time and think out his nefarious plans; however, through Hansen’s inspired interpretation, it soon becomes apparent, that she’s singing more about herself and her hopes and dreams (“I could just eat you up, Mr. Todd, I really could” she grins perhaps a bit too portentously.) Moreover, with Stoneman, their darkly comical “A Little Priest” (in which Todd and Lovett at last formulate their grisly plan) is a big, bouncy throwback to all those sometimes off-beat “Music Hall” ‘novelty’ songs; overflowing with plenty of black humor (“Have you a Beadle?” Todd queries; “Next week so I’m told” Lovett quips, “beadle isn’t bad till you smell it and notice how well it’s been greased—stick to priest!”) Indeed, each practically give off sparks performing it, strangely lightening the atmosphere right before intermission—a ghoulish (but effective way to conclude Act One.
Likewise, furnishing meritorious support is Bella Gil who does a seriously commendable job as Todd’s long lost daughter, “Joanna”. Conveying a vibrant, breathless quality suitable to a young woman who is excited for life to begin, this not-yet-sullied youthful energy easily wins us over which, for this show especially, is vital as it keeps us viscerally “involved” and constantly on the edge of our seats–anxious that some dreadful fate might befall her (as it nearly does.) All of this ‘spirit’ is apparent in the iconic “Green Finch And Linnet Bird” as she sustains some truly lovely notes along the way. Joining her as the heroic young sailor, “Anthony Hope”, Josh Switzer himself has a powerful voice which he puts to awesome use in “Johanna”—arguably one of the best songs ever written for the musical stage and certainly from Master-Composer Sondheim (“I feel you, Johanna, and one day I’ll steal you—‘til I’m with you then, I’m with you there, sweetly buried in your yellow hair!” he rhapsodizes after laying eyes on the beguiling young lass sitting forlornly at her window.) Switzer’s consummate interpretation and accomplishment of this haunting and heart-felt melody makes it a definite highlight of the show! Together, Gil and Switzer tender some awesome two-part harmony with “Kiss Me” (a vital inclusion to the plot here, missing from the movie) as the pair, fervently in the throes of newfound love, conspire to escape Turpin’s demented grasp, in order to marry and make their way—far away from the despair and depravity that surrounds them. Danny Diaz too, is in excellent voice and demonstrates great sensitivity in his depiction of “Tobias Ragg”—painting him as more naïve than simple-minded. His “Toby” also maintains a clever hint of an Irish Brogue (–a sharp and significant choice given what we subsequently learn concerning the ‘real identity of his ‘Master’ “Pirelli”) Managing a cool rapid-fire, tongue-twisting delivery of his market-place ballyhoo “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” (this too is the total intact sequence featuring its frequently cut verses making its experience all the more satisfying) Diaz later repeats this success with its “semi-reprise” “God That’s Good”–this latter version sung about Mrs. Lovett’s suddenly sensational-tasting Meat-pies, now that’s she’s found the right ‘ingredient, thus turning the unknowing populace of Fleet Street into gluttonous cannibals who can’t get enough of them (“Eat Them slow cause every one’s a prize” he and Mrs. Lovett exult.) In Act Two, he again strikes gold with the touching 11 O’clock descant “Not While I’m Around”; meanwhile, Erika Baldwin bestows on us a tragic “Beggar Woman”–who may be more than what, at first, she appears to be. Clad in a dirty faded ball gown and opera gloves, even through the prism of her clouded, tormented mind, she continues to physically ‘wear’ and be bound by the memory of that horrible night of her degradation.
Even the villains here are luridly gaudy—but always well-drawn. Tom Patrick is equal parts upstanding and outraging as the diabolical “Vulture of the law”, “Judge Turpin”—a man as possessed by his own self-righteousness as he is maddened by his own intensely repressed desires. At one point, he passes judgment from high aloft the balcony which literally has him looking down on us! (Little wonder that once Turpin conclusively does achieve his comeuppance, many in the audience are likely to applaud despite themselves.) Anthony Kairoaz is also remarkable as Turpin’s greasy wing-man, “Beadle Bamford”. Dressed in over-sized clothing (including a too-large top hat) and oozing plenty of false geniality (which masks a penchant for malice,) one gets the idea that this is a mere slip of a boy awarded official duties either due to his adept ‘toadying” to the right parties–or because he has something on them! Either way, Kairoaz makes the most of being the guy you love to hate, which makes us like him all the more–which is a legitimate acting feat! Not to be overlooked either is his savvy way with song as he takes center stage with “Ladies And Their Sensitivities” and several hilarious “Parlor Songs” (when he insinuates his most unwelcome companionship onto Mrs. Lovett at a decidedly inopportune time.) So too, Alex Bodrero—another familiar face at “The Gem”, more than lives up to his character’s illustrious appellation as “The Adolofo Pirelli”! Without a doubt, this is one of the more colorful roles Bodrero has taken on over the course of his involvement with the theater, and he adroitly brings a needed sense of fun to the proceedings during “The Contest”. Favoring a lighter touch throughout, while his surprise revelation to Todd may not be as bone-chilling as has been previously seen, Bodrero’s overall portrayal isn’t as raw or brutal either, which brings a welcome sense of perspective—if but briefly–in a show such as this.
Directed by “One More Productions” Co-Founder, Damien Lorton, he shrewdly takes concepts and conventions inherent to the show that are already dark and makes them even blacker and more dramatic! Furthermore, Lorton and his troupe are presenting the show in its entirety—complete with full (often shortened or omitted verses) and cut numbers, making this production more comprehensive than even Broadway audiences initially saw it! It’s also in the little (but significant) touches that his direction is brimming with that make it so thrilling and distinguished, such as how, when existing the flashback, Turpin casually reaches out and smugly pats Sweeney’s shoulder in an arrogant gesture that conveys these aren’t simply memories or past occurrences for the barber but rather very real—and burning—realities for him; or how Barker’s wife “Lucy” is performed in that flashback by the girl who plays her daughter, “Johanna”. After intermission, “Johanna” (–the second act sequence) is also brilliantly staged with “Anthony”, up on one balcony (searching for his lost love) and his ladylove, “Johanna” (having been locked away in “Fogg’s Private Asylum for the Mentally Deranged”) exactly opposite him on the other balcony—the two symbolically so close yet so far apart. Meanwhile, Ol’ Sweeney himself is center-stage singing the number’s sweetest, most melancholy lyrics while casually performing the ghastliest deed, as Mrs. Lovett pops in and out of the action nonchalantly carrying baskets loaded with the remains of Todd’s’ “handiwork” for disposal in her stage-right oven.
Although it may seem presumptive or ‘too far afield’ to suggest that a show like this ‘lives’ or, (pardon the pun) ‘dies’ predicated on its supporting technical elements, they can most assuredly help it—and in this regard this ‘little theatre company that could’ proves once again, not only that it can—it does (and in the most hair-raising ways!) As a whole they join forces to create a merrily macabre mood. Wally Huntoon’s set is a deceptively disarming cobblestone and wood shingle re-imagining of “Fleet Street” that’s almost a ‘gingerbread-esque’ take on an Old English village worthy of a Christmas Card; but appearances can be deceiving—this is also the ‘quaint’ view of a Britain that harbored the likes of “Burke and Hare” and “Jack The Ripper” (and Huntoon’s set catches the essence of this so well—it’s scary!) John Hyrkas and Dan Baird’s creative lighting design employs several bold primary colors to incredible and at times, symbolic effect—particularly murky green, subdued purple, ethereal orange and shocking crimson. They also utilize up-lighting from the footlights to cast disquieting shadows across the faces of the cast at key moments (as in the various verses of “The Ballad Of Sweeney Todd”.) This insightful interplay between shadow and light is sagaciously applied amid the flashback sequence as we uncover how Todd’s wife “Lucy” was ultimately tricked and violated by the so-called “Honorable” Judge Turpin once her husband was “transported for life”.
So too, the innovative use of colored lighting also serves a big part in Judge Turpin’s tortured prayer session (cut from the original Broadway production.) Green conveys the sordid, sickly nature of the whole exercise, only to be jolted into bursts of flaming “Devil” red as he flails himself furiously for allowing his mind to stray into “unclean” licentious thoughts about the young “Johanna”, whom he has taken in. At length even these lead him to a disturbing erotic kind of fulfillment, at which time he’s bathed suggestively in white as the segment reaches its finish. Similarly, Larry Watts’ costume designs are unwaveringly authentic and evocatively spot-on. From sepulchral black to salacious red, or from dingy rags to sumptuous silken finery, to assert that the costumes here are lavish is not at all an understatement! Quite a few look like they could’ve been taken straight out of an old Victorian “Dead Book” (a photo album many in the early days of photography used to keep of tin-types specifically of the recently deceased.) Other wickedly delightful touches include Sweeney’s leather vest and overcoat (I.E. material culled from the skinned hides of once living things—and a nifty ‘homage’ to such cinematic “Horror greats” as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”!) There’s also Pirelli’s top hat with colored pheasant-feathers and his gold and charcoal-grey striped waistcoat (as would befit such a ‘Peacock’ of a man who relies more on showmanship and a fraudulent reputation than actual ability.) In Act Two, he outfits the newly prosperous Lovett in ‘scandalous’ red silk boudoir attire making a thoroughly unexpected (and unforgettable) impression.
No denying—the worst pies in London make for the best theater in So Cal! So even if you’ve ‘sailed the world and beheld its wonders”, “The Gem Theatre” is the place to be, located at 12852 Main Street in Garden Grove, California to catch “Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street” (After all, people are just dying for him to ‘meat’ them!) Why, even the lobby is “dressed to kill”–like a morbidly majestic “Music Hall” from Mephistophelian regions beyond, sporting a large black casket and bloody hand prints adorning the stairwell! Having opened Saturday, October 1st, “Sweeney Todd” has taken up residence at “The Gem Theatre” through Sunday, October 23rd, , 2016. Show-times are Thursdays, Friday and Saturdays, at 8:00 PM, with Sunday matinees at 2:00 PM. On Saturday, October 15th, there will be an additional 2:00 PM show. Tickets may be obtained either by phone at (714) 741-9550, ext. 221, or on-line by visiting www.onemoreproductions.com. (Discounts are available for Seniors and Children under 12 for all performances while Special “Student Rush” Tickets are also available for Thursday’s and Friday’s shows.) Take it from us, your Halloween isn’t complete until you pay a visit to this Barber!
Production Stills By Lisa Scarsi, Courtesy Of Dan Pittman at “Pittman PR” (www.pittmanpr.com) Shoko Araki And “One More Productions” (www.onemoreproductions.com) Special Thanks To Dan Pittman, Lisa Scarsi, Damien Lorton, Nicole Cassesso, Shoko Araki And To The Cast & Crew Of “The Gem Theatre’s” “Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street” For Making This Story Possible.