Sweeney Todd at the Center for Performing Arts

Attend the tale of

Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

For this Excursion we traveled to Denver's Buell Theatre to catch what has been described as maybe the most dark and horrifying musical ever written, Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street."

Why, you ask? Who wouldn't drive four hours to watch a tuneless, well-crafted musical with morbidly fascinating characters, and far-reaching moral issues — BESIDES, "Sweeney Todd" is about a man who slits people's throats and bakes them into meat pies. Who wouldn't want to watch?

How can a show like that NOT be terribly interesting? It may not suit everyone's tastes (Hahahahhahha!!!!!!), but it is definitely twisted and certainly revels in creepiness. You like dark meat? You'll like Sweeney Todd.

The stark set design creates the atmosphere for terror and darkness. Nothing but the necessities: a cast of 11 singers, present the demon barber's tale of revenge in the traditional opera "face-forward" style, with little interaction or even eye contact between actors. It's an intentional emotional disconnect. Something I've never seen before. Also, the actors provide their own musical accompaniment in lieu of a pit orchestra. So while there is little interaction between the actors, it was countered by a passionate musical fury we get to see, and hear that is part of the action. Something else I haven't experienced.

The stage setting is nonspecific. At times it seems like an old Victorian psych ward, other times maybe a thrift shop. The actors sit in chairs forming a square on a raised wooden platform taking up only a portion of the center stage. The primary set piece is a coffin that also serves as a table, a judge's bench, and the deadly barber's chair. Throughout the actors play various percussion, horn and stringed instruments, moving into the flow of the action when they have lyrics to sing, then return to place, all the while maintaining stern looks on their faces. They never leave the stage. Maybe they are trapped themselves. I couldn't decide whether this is some feverish dream or inmates of the asylum acting out the story.

The opening scene is appropriately chilling and moody, with cast members singing about a world gone mad and of the terrible deeds to come by a madman seeking gory revenge. The stage as set suggests an asylum, with a young man in a straightjacket, surrounded by actors in white lab coats. He sings the show's opening words – "Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd."

Sweeney Todd is introduced having just escaped prison on a trumped-up charge, and he is looking for revenge against the man who stole his wife, drove her to suicide, and who now has custody of Todd's daughter, Johanna. Sweeney meets up with Mrs. Lovett a plump, shrill woman who makes the worst meat pies in London and she wants to help him. The stage is set for revenge and twisted darkness when the "evil" Judge Turpin and his smarmy toady, the Beadle are introduced. But it takes a while for things to really get moving.

The show gets bogged waaaay down about 30 minutes into the first act, and doesn't recover until just before intermission. The whole first act is too heavy. Things manage to keep moving throughout the second act, but that slow stretch at the beginning tends to sit in your stomach like one of Mrs. Lovett's bad meat pies. Still, too much obsessive brooding. I found myself wishing Todd would just get on with it and start killing people.

Another thing. It seemed to me that Sweeney Todd was too evil and not a very sympathetic character. In turn Judge Turpin, who is SUPPOSED to be all evil and non-sympathetic, didn't seem so bad, just a self centered, self-indulgent, pervert. This plus the emotional banishment style of the play makes the climax, when Todd finally gets his revenge on the Judge, go by with a mere shrug of the emotional shoulders, and the whole thing kind of collapses on itself.

I could have lived without the recurring train whistle that made me want to reach for my own razor. While I like theatrical musicals, I'm not fond of operatic scores. I find it difficult to understand the lyrics, and thus the dialogue, which makes the back-story and current story a bit unexplained. Also, the staging is all musical, not action. I found that distracting.

Even with all my qualms I liked this play. The cast was excellent and energetic, with gleefully wicked enthusiasm, bouncing around and singing killing and dying. The deaths, of which there are many, range from the comical to the graphic. I loved the concept staging, and left with an enormous appreciation for the artistry and musicianship of the actors. Obviously, this little Barber Shop of horrors is not for everyone, but definitely worth seeing.

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