Originally published in the SFU Peak, 1990.


Sweeney Todd

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. 
Book by Hugh Wheeler.

Directed and conducted by French Tickner
Freddy Wood Theatre, UBC. Jan 17 - Feb 3, 1990. 8:00 p.m.
Tix: 15.00/12.50 

Review by Michael Brockington

When I was a kid my Dad used to take me down to the barber shop, and he would always warn me that if I didn't behave myself the barber was likely to snip my ears off -- snick, snick! I may have been skeptical, but when it comes to your ears it just doesn't pay to take chances. I behaved. So maybe a barber isn't on par with the dentist as a modern bogeyman, but he can still be a pretty fearsome figure. If you don't believe me you should take yourself off to see Sweeney Todd, and remember -- in Victorian London the barbers used to extract teeth as well as attend to your hair.

 The English have their fair share of mass-murderers, to be sure, but none of them are quite so much fun as the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Everyone must know the premise: Sweeny sets up a barber shop, slits the throats of the clientele, slips the bodies to Mrs. Lovett (proprietress of the pie shop downstairs) who grinds up the carcasses to use as the secret ingredient in her meat pies. If you made the story into a horror film critics everywhere would be appalled, and the movie would make buckets of loot. In fact Sweeney Todd has been made into a movie -- several times -- but its illustrious pedigree (stage versions dating from 1874) no doubt helped shelter it from critical cruelty and besides, we are not critics here. Why, the tale of Sweeney Todd has even been adapted as a ballet. Can you imagine a slasher ballet? No? Well how about a slasher musical? If you're imagination isn't up to the task, then once again let me suggest you take yourself off to Stephen Sondheim's version of Sweeney Todd.

 It was a stroke of brilliance for Sondheim to reshape the story as a musical -- the fluffiness of the musical is given a fascinating edge by the horrific plot, something like an adorable kitten with razor claws, with comedy as the sinew that binds horror to silliness. There's a lovely musical number about cannibalism that will have you laughing aloud, I guarantee. One man's meat, as they say, is another man's parson.

 Of course, the trouble with musicals is they often have too much dialogue, with interludes now and then for a song which doesn't have much to do with the plot. What you want in a musical is music! And Sondheim gives it to you -- you're lucky to hear three spoken sentences in a row. The plot is embedded in the songs, rather than weaving around them, something which keeps you listening closely. This gives the show the texture of an opera without losing the exuberance of musical comedy. The songs are strong, with frequent use made of simultaneous, seperate vocal lines that refuse to harmonize too neatly, and effective use is made of a large chorus. Rather than having an orchestra, the score is played on synthesizers. Perhaps some lushness is lost, but it provides an intimate sound appropriate to the small Freddy Wood theatre and allows the performers to sing without microphones.

 Another problem with your typical musical is the obligatory and generally boring romance between male and female leads. Sure enough, we get a little of that in Sweeney Todd -- between Todd's daughter and a young sailor, but fortunately it's a subsidiary part of the plot, and kept from being too familiar by making the ingenue a bit of a twit (albeit a twit with a twitter -- a metaphorical songbird with a gorgeous voice). There's an interesting departure from cliche, too, in revealing the villian, the corrupt Judge Turpin, to be almost as much a romantic as the young sailor. Of course, the main characters in the musical are Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett, and their romance, such as it is, is far from boring, in its context of high-spirited and entrepreneurial homicide

 Adele Clark, as Mrs. Lovett, gives a marvellous performance, full of humor and energy, and she manages to keep her English accent while singing, which is something even the Beatles never mastered. Sweeney, played by Roger L. Stephens, was a bit too sombre for my taste; he sings well, though, and as most of his time is spent singing, there's little to complain of. The rest of the cast more than compensates for his lower energy level with their generally manic characterizations, which never suffer from any misplaced subtlety. Mel Eriksen, as The Beadle, and Giovanni Smaldino, as Pirelli, are particularly enjoyable. Only 3 parts are played by professionals; students from the Music and Theatre departments at UBC do such a good job of filling out the rest of the 23-member cast that you can't tell the pros from the students without a scorecard. 

Robert Gardiner's set design evokes a London that could pass as a vacation-resort for demons: a devil's playground with soot-stained brick walls stretching up out of sight into the heavens, windows barred from without and bricked up from within, fuming chimneys, and huge sets that slide out of the wings with the swift, smooth and silent menace of icebergs. Ronald Fedoruk's lighting is equally evocative, making strong use of shadows and backlighting, while Mara Gottler's costumes hover between absurdity and grotesquerie, accentuating the relationship between the two. French Tickner, the director, spends the evening conducting the score from the orchestra pit. All that is visible of him is one raised hand waving a baton, with his other hand occasionally floating into view to cue a singer -- just the two hands fluttering at the edge of the stage like moths hypnotized by the footlights.

 A huge amount of talent and not a little money have gone into making this a very professional production. Ironically, this is the kind of thing you'll never see at one of the professional theatres in Vancouver. Nobody can afford to actually pay 23 actors, plus assorted musicians and technicians, every night. The only way to produce something on such a grand scale is to use unpaid labour, such as students. The only shows you could see that might be comparable in scale would be one of these touring companies that pass through town for a couple of nights, like Cats or Me and My Gal. And you'd have to pay four times as much, and see it in a theatre ten times as large. Not only is Sweeney Todd a good musical, and a good production, it's a good bargain! Go see it, and make reservations. It looked like a full house when I saw it on Saturday. A warning, if you're particularly succeptible to allergies or asthma: the production uses the smoke machines a fair bit. You still should go see it, but take a respirator or something. 

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