The USC Musical Theatre Repertoire’s production of Sweeney Todd was excellent on all accounts, particularly the performances, set and production design.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a musical about a barber named Benjamin Barker. At the start of the show, he returns from fifteen years living as a convict in Australia on a trumped-up charge. He returns to London to be told by his downstairs neighbor that his wife is dead and that the man responsible for her suicide has taken his daughter as his ward, causing him to seek his bloody revenge upon those who have wronged his family.
All of the actors in this production were truly impressive. The vocal quality was very high, and the lyrics were all easily discernible. Amanda Griffiths (Beggar Woman), Arielle Fishman (Johanna), and Cole Cuomo (Sweeney Todd) were all notable and performed very well. Tory Stolper as Mrs. Lovett stood out even amongst the rest of the impressive cast: Her acting was very good throughout, particularly the timing of her line delivery, consistent physicality and facial expression. Her vocal performances were also very strong. The most memorable song was probably “A Little Priest,” simply because of the excellent chemistry and camaraderie between Mrs. Lovett and Mr. Todd. That being said, Matthew McFarland’s performance as Judge Turpin in “Johanna: Mea Culpa” was particularly poignant. His voice was full of emotion and conflict and didn’t break awkwardly even when flagellating himself with a very painful-looking whip.
The one inconsistency to note overall was the fluctuation of the accents: It seemed that all of the characters had English accents except for Sweeney, which was slightly off-putting. That being said, those who adopted them were consistent in their use and they were all quite good. Overall, this show was cast very well. The one challenge was the casting of Toby, as the character is supposed to be a young boy; that being said, David Nicholson was very good in the role, particularly at the very end of the show in the bake house.
The ensemble is also worth noting. Their voices were all strong, contributing to the smooth flow of the production. They were good at controlling the pace of the show, while also increasing the tension and wariness of the audience in numbers such as “God! That’s Good” at the beginning of Act 2 and “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” halfway through Act 1. One of the oddities of Sweeney Todd is that the ensemble proposes to tell you his tale at the beginning of the show, which means the musical is bookended with an introduction and a conclusion. That being said, the conclusion in particular was very striking and left the show on a very powerful note.
The choreography was also very well thought-out. There were several entrances and exits to the stage that one often wouldn’t notice until they were used. The aisle between the sides of the audience wasn’t overused, but was used enough and to good effect to bring the audience into the action. There were a number of ensemble pieces where so many people in such a small space could have been overwhelming, but it was blocked very well and there were no awkward bumps between actors. The most striking choreography was perhaps in “City on Fire”, where the ensemble and the blocking did a really good job of increasing up the tension in the theatre and picking up the pace of the show.
The set was very cleverly put together, particularly given the odd requirements of the show and the small space in which the actors had to work. The Massman is uncomfortably small at the best of times, and yet this set worked very well with the musical. It was composed of two levels, each side segmented away to be a different set. Each ‘room’ was its own distinct space, and the main sets for the show (Mr. Todd’s barber shop, Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop, and Johanna’s room) were not used for any other scenes. This made the show and its movements very easy to follow. The most ingenious piece, though, was the trap that led from Sweeney’s chair in the second act. His victims would literally slide out of the chair and down onto the floor behind a curtain. The scene transitions and prop movements were good in their speed and relative subtlety, although there were a couple of mishaps with Mrs. Lovett’s pie counter.
The costumes were dark with a gothic Victorian style that complimented the tone of the show and the design of the set. The splashes of color granted to Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd were interesting but not out of place, though the one white sleeve of Mr. Todd’s costume did strike one as odd at first. The makeup matched the fairly black-and-white visual scheme, with many faces looking wan and dark shadows put under the eyes of the characters. This added to the slightly unhealthy and deranged atmosphere of the world in which the play functions.
Overall, MTR’s production of Sweeney Todd was of a very high standard on all accounts. It was impressive enough to elicit a desire to attend their future productions, presuming they are of the same calibre as this strikingly dark and poignant musical.