By Ruth Ross
"Blood and gore all over the floor, and me without a spoon!" Isn't that the way the old kid's camp chant goes? Gross, you say? You bet!
But gory and grisly horror tales and movies fascinated us as kids: Think of the Friday the 13th movies—all 23 of 'em. Accounts of Jack the Ripper and modern serial killers have long held the public's attention: What did they do and why did they do it? And the legend of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street has held people spellbound for over 150 years—just as it will enthrall you in the snazzy, professional production by the Light Opera of New Jersey, which runs through July 23 at the South Orange Performing Arts Center (SOPAC).
The tale of Sweeney Todd is based on a fourteenth century French legend, which made its way into British folklore to appear first in print in 1846 in a tabloid Penny Dreadful, with Sweeney Todd and his lover Mrs. Nellie Lovett as minor, unsympathetic characters. The following year, when it was dramatized for the Brittania Theatre in London, however, the action's focus shifted to Todd and Lovett, who were portrayed as stock melodramatic villains.
In the myth's latest incarnation, the musical thriller entitled just Sweeney Todd, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler, revenge and social commentary have been introduced into the plot. The barber has become a sympathetic character driven to his dastardly acts because of injustice. When it opened on Broadway in 1979, the play garnered eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Score and Best Book, and it became a film in 2007 starring Johnny Depp as Sweeney. This wonderful production on the SOPAC stage is evidence why, despite its unpleasant subject, the musical has continued to attract audiences.
In this sweeping tale of romance, vengeance, and murder, the barber Sweeney Todd returns to London after 15 years in Australia where he was sentenced on a charge trumped up by a judge who fancied his beautiful wife. Todd has vengeance on his mind toward the judge for his actions and reclamation of his daughter Johanna, who has become the judge's ward. But vengeance expands into psychosis, and the judge is not the only one endangered who sits in this barber's most dangerous chair. To carry out his grisly task, Todd enlists the aid of Mrs. Nellie Lovett, a maker of meat pies, who helps him dispose of the bodies by turning them into the best meat pies in London!
Doesn't sound much like the typical plot of a musical comedy, does it? Actually, the 27 songs and the short stretches of dialogue make the play closer to opera—Grand Guignol-style, of course. This means the audience must listen carefully to the lyrics, which are accompanied by a musically challenging score that demands fine singers. And Director Jeffrey Fiorello’s large cast gives the audience an performance of hair-raising chills, spectacular music and non-stop dramatic action.
There is so much that is outstanding about this production it is difficult to know where to begin. Beau Kennedy’s scenic design involves brick walls of 19th century industrial London that loom over the action, a versatile rolling cube whose four sides comprise the pie shop and Mrs. Lovett’s apartment, and stairs that steeply rise to the barber emporium at the top. This oppressive feeling is reinforced by Diane Giangreco’s atmospheric, shadowy lighting design. Costumes, many of them are originals from the New York city Opera’s 2004 Sweeney Todd revival, are nothing short of fabulous with their riotous mix of texture, pattern and color. Stephen Fox’s musical direction of the nine-piece orchestra provides eerie accompaniment for the strong voices singing the complex score. There’s even a loud shriek that will lift you off your seat several times! And Samantha Simpson is to be complimented on her intricate choreography, which moves a large cast around the stage agilely and smoothly.
Against this marvelous back-drop, the actors excel. The challenging score calls for performers who are fine actors as well as fine singers, and Fiorello has these in spades. Shane Long handles the role of the male love interest, Anthony Hope, with great stage presence and a terrific voice. It doesn't hurt that he's exceptionally handsome, too. His romantic partner, Todd's daughter Johanna, is played by Caitlin Alongi with a glorious voice. Ruth Kenote’s Beggar Woman is annoying yet pitiful; with a deep bass speaking and singing voice, Charles Schneider as treacherous Judge Turpin is appropriately sleazy and conniving. Joseph Hill’s Beadle is full of self-importance and arrogance, and Pirelli, played by Frank Hughes (above, left, with Garcia, Lorenzo and ensemble), is the classic mountebank who attempts to swindle poor folks out of the few pence they have. Last, but not least, there's Thomas Carey Gsell (above, right, with Galorenzo) as Pirelli's assistant Tobias Ragg. He possesses a marvelous voice, expressive eyes and an earnest manner that really gives meaning to his love song to Mrs. Lovett, "Not While I'm Around" (you'll recognize it from the Barbra Streisand CD).
But it's Ken M. Garcia as Sweeney Todd and Julie Galorenzo (above) who really stand out. The latter’s performance rivals the original Mrs. Lovett of Angela Landsbury, which won her a Tony. She provides hilarious, robust English music hall comedy when she sings "The Worst Pies in London" and "God, That's Good," and touching affection when she professes her love for Todd in "By the Sea." We feel her loneliness and understand her obsession with the barber. She will do anything he wants because she is so enamored with him. Galorenzo’s voice is strong and expressive, and, best of all, she doesn't lose her English accent while singing!
Likewise, Garcia is a splendid Sweeney Todd. His rich baritone fills the theater as he navigates Sondheim’s difficult music, switching tempos and keys within the same song. He has said that it is one of his dream roles. Garcia is equally fine in the acting department. His Sweeney is a lonely, grieving man who turns into a monster before our eyes. And we’re always aware that he “uses” Mrs. Lovett to carry out his scheme (although it is she who dreams up the idea of using human flesh in her pies); this is especially evident in the droll drawing room scene where she’s all googly-eyed over him as he reads the paper and ignores her.
Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street is not your ordinary blockbuster Broadway musical. It’s not often produced locally, although it is currently running to sold-out audiences Off-Broadway on Barrow Street (to be frank, they do serve meat pies). It is a disturbing work of art that will unsettle you. As the ghastly ensemble sings, an icy chill penetrates each heart in the theater. It reminds us of the chaos and madness present in each of us, just waiting to surface.
Given this spectacular limited-run production by Light Opera of New Jersey at SOPAC, you'd better hurry to make reservations because it's bound to be sold out long before the last performance. The subject is not for the faint-hearted, but for something completely different from the all-too-usual fluff, make an appointment to see Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street and be fleet about it!
Sweeney Todd will run at the South Orange Performing Arts Center (SOPAC), 1 SOPAC Way, South Orange (behind the train station) through July 23, Friday and Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 2 PM. For information and reservations call the box office at 973.313.2787 or click here.