Lyric Serves Up Deliciously Dark ‘Sweeney Todd’ (5 Stars)

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim: Book by Hugh Wheeler; Directed & Staged by Spiro Veloudos; Music Director, Jonathan Goldberg. Produced by The Lyric Stage Company of Boston at 140 Clarendon St. Boston through October 11th.

Having never seen any version of “Sweeney Todd”, and only being familiar with the musical via TV commercials from the 80’s when a touring company starring Angela Lansbury mounted a production, I wasn’t sure what to expect. My expectations were elevated before the performance when director Spiros Veloudos described the play as “not only one of the great musicals of the twentieth century, but of all time” in his pre-show introduction. And Wow! This was not the kind of thing I would ever have anticipated in mainstream theater. Beautifully gruesome, this alternately chilling and humorous production is the perfect antidote to the kind of lighter musical theater fare that keeps some folks away from the genre. Like last spring’s previous Sondheim production, “Into The Woods”, director Spiros Veloudos has assembled a terrific cast that delivers a first rate production, and the complex and dissonant score packs a wallop in their capable hands.

Based on the 1973 play “Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street” by Christopher Bond, the story centers on Benjamin Barker, a barber who has changed his name to Sweeney Todd following his escape from prison for a crime that he did not commit but for which he was sentenced for life. He has been rescued at sea by young Anthony Hope, a kind hearted sailor, and returns largely unrecognized to his 19th century village, fifteen years later. Upon his arrival, Mrs. Lovett (the talented Amelia Broome) informs him that his wife poisoned herself following his sentencing and that his daughter is now the ward of the very judge who falsely and cruelly sentenced him. He swears his revenge and the fun begins.

Mrs. Lovett, a purveyor of the most horrible pies in all of London (given the ingredients, it’s not a surprise) allows Sweeney to set up shop in his old quarters, and when she presents him with his old collection of sterling silver razors, we begin to suspect that life’s blows have warped Sweeney’s mind a bit as he lovingly sings to those razors in the chilling and effective number, “My Friends”.

Mrs. Lovett isn’t exactly a picture of solid mental health either, and her cavalier attitude towards engaging in the despicable makes her a perfect accomplice and business partner for Sweeney.
The show begins a little slowly but by mid first act takes on a momentum of horror that continues to escalate throughout. Although some of the macabre scenes are played for laughs, this is a very dark piece and that mood is conveyed beautifully through Janie E. Howland’s greyish set and the red lighting that dominates some of the more gruesome scenes.

The progression of Sweeney’s obsession and madness is portrayed wonderfully by Christopher Chew as his thousand yard stare becomes more distant as the action moves towards the bloody end. Amelia Broome at times seems a little too sweet for one so twisted, but I wondered if it was just her TV anchor good looks that deflect some of the pure evil I suspect is required for the role. But she works well against type with her comic flair in the almost campy horror scenes and with her song and dance capabilities.

There are strong performances throughout, including Phil Tayler as Tobias Ragg, the mentally diminished assistant, who gives a spirited performance as a snake oil salesman for Todd’s rival barber Pirelli, then takes a sweet turn when he becomes like a son to Mrs. Lovett. He also delivers one of the best numbers of the show, the touching, “Not While I’m Around” (with Mrs. Lovett). Sam Simahk and Meghan LaFlam are perfect as the nearly thwarted lovers Anthony and Johanna, and Simahk gives one of the highlight performances with the beautiful “Johanna”. As the fittingly repulsive bureaucrats, Paul C. Soper as the Judge and Remo Airaldi as Beadle Bamford are well-cast (I nearly clapped out loud when the Judge got his), and Lisa Yuen (Beggar Woman) and Prince lookalike Davron S. Monroe (Pirelli) shine as well.

This is a terrific show, and rivals my other favorite musical theater performance of 2014, the equally impressive “Into The Woods”. Don’t miss it, especially if you like a little dark meat on your musical theater plate. For more info, go to: