Sweeney Todd at Human Race Theatre

By Jacqui Theobald

Photo: Rebecca Watson as Mrs. Lovett and Jamie Cordes as Sweeney in the 2016 production

It takes a village of superb technical designers and a crew to create the foggy town that was London in the 1830s. It takes a troop of energetic, multi-talented actor/singers to bring to life the citizens of Fleet Street: barber, baker, candle-maker.

A bit of nostalgia

The play is well known to Director Scott Stoney, who has performed the title character twice previously, and Jamie Cordes, who played the role of Anthony some 20 years ago.

Stephen Sondheim’s Tony-winning music and lyrics, book by Hugh Wheeler, original vintage 1979, are particularly complex and challenging. Music Director Sean Michael Flowers handles the difficult score and singers, in addition to conducting the unseen eight-person band.

Heading the terrific cast is Cordes as Sweeney. “I’m working hard to make sure Sweeney is human,” he says, admiring the complexity and unexpected humor of Sondheim, and performing the dark opera-like numbers with clarity and beauty.

Rebecca Watson brings such verve and energy to Mrs. Lovett, pie baker, with her music hall twang and dance; she almost makes the audience want to join in her world. She does a semi-cockney accent, making sure she remains understandable.

The plot

Sweeney Todd, who had another name when he was unjustly sentenced to exile in Australia by Judge Turpin, has returned to London planning justice for the crooked Turpin.  He discovers his own daughter, Johanna, has been Turpin’s ward when he befriends a young sailor, Anthony, who has fallen in love with the overly protected girl.

In cahoots with Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney becomes the demon, slitting throats and providing the filling for her meat pies. They turn out to be so popular with the public that the pair begin to enjoy a degree of financial comfort.

But Sweeney remains obsessed with killing Turpin although several twists prevent it, for a while.

Sub-plots include Turpin’s obsession with Johanna and his proclivity to place anyone who opposes him in an insane asylum. There are also the issues of vengeance, murder, cannibalism, and tragedy.

The rest of the cast 

David McDonald is the villainous Turpin, imperious and unrelenting. Secretively, he lusts for his ward, Johanna, singing of both his love for her and his own self-flagellating guilt. His voice is rich and powerful, and he brings a proper sense of evil to the judge.

The definitively named sailor, Anthony Hope, is played with clear optimism and a sense of hope by Zack Steele, a fine tenor. He’s love interest and hero, trusted by Sweeney—mostly.

Kimberly Hessler is the beauteous and luckless Johanna, whether clad in virginal white or disguised as a boy. Her voice is strong and up to the challenge.

Aaron Vega plays the Beadle with just enough menace to make him the judge’s loyal compatriot. Vega can play most any role convincingly.

An ensemble of eight completes the cast, playing a variety of parts and bringing strength to the musical numbers.

The crew

Scott Kimmins is technical director. The set by Dan Gray is complex, functional, creative, and dependent on unbelievable timing. That it fulfills all the necessary requirements while being elegant and appropriate to several different settings working within the fairly small space is a marvel. Stoney also uses the side aisles and the space at the top of the house.

Eric Moore, Darion Lee, Ryan Sess, and Ray Zupp built the revolving, two-level, two-sided set. It is rotated by a pair of stage hands working precisely, impeccably timed, cued, and activated.  It includes a sort of chute that victims are dumped through and an oven emitting fire and smoke. Walking in the opposite direction on a moving stage is a balance challenge to the actors. They were well rehearsed to overcome their hesitation.

A backdrop of high windows indicates the time of the Industrial Revolution, as well as reflecting a burning city at one point. Many other careful details enrich the sense of the era.

Heather Powell, properties master, has outdone herself. She designed and made the barber chair that propels Sweeney’s victims below the set. She fashioned a device that oozes her hand-made blood along the edge of the butcher’s razor as he slits throats. They work. She made ‘meat’ pies in her own kitchen but does not advise eating them.

Kristen A. Sutter is the hard-working, very precise, very effective stage manager who leaves nothing to chance.

Jay Brunner is sound designer, both bold and subtle. When it’s this good, the audience barely takes note, so naturally does it work. The blast of a factory whistle is the loud exception.

John Rensel creates the lighting, essential to the show’s many moods. He’s also responsible for the water vapor, non-toxic fog.

It took half a dozen costume shop workers to carry out Janet Powell’s costume designs for the large cast.

Choreographer Tracey Bonner creates lively movement.

Stoney notes the similarities to some of today’s shootings possibly motivated by similar loss and frustration.

Gina Keucher, a fan of Sweeney, sums it up: “When I first saw it, I thought this is weird. They’re doing what? Then, I began to get it and just loved it.” Keucher is a baker’s wife who knows how to wield a long knife.

That “Ballad of Sweeney Todd” just gets in your head and stays there.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street runs through Sunday, Oct. 2. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday shows begin at 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday shows begin at 7 p.m. Sunday matinees, at 2 p.m. Tickets range from $25, 45, $50 for adults; $25, $43, $46 for seniors. (Some special pricing may be available.) For more information, please call 937.228.3630 or visit TicketCenterStage.com or HumanRaceTheatre.org.

Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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