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Impressive SWEENEY TODD slashes its way into the emotions at Great Lakes Theater

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association and Cleveland Critics Circle)

The recent release of a list of the 100 greatest musicals of all times has brought about much controversy in the theatre community.  Though there has been conflict created by the plays on the list, there was no controversy over who was the best composer.  Stephen Sondheim was the only writer/lyricist/composer who had five selections in the top sixteen.  GYPSY placed number one, SWEENEY TODD 3rd, WEST SIDE STORY 8th, COMPANY 15th and SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE was 16th.

Stephen Sondheim, whose SWEENEY TODD is now on stage at the Great Lakes Theater, has been dubbed by many experts as “possibly the greatest lyricist ever.

As a youth, Sondheim became friends with James Hammerstein, the son of Oscar Hammerstein, the co-author of such Broadway wonders as OKLAHOMA, CAROUSEL and THE KING AND I.  This surrogate father had a profound influence on Sondheim.  He also was exposed to Robert Barrow, a teacher and musicologist, who made him realize that “all my romantic views of art were nonsense.”  Sondheim’s musicals often reflect that disdain for the traditional emotional view of love by having love go wrong.

Sondheim’s scores are complex.  They often rely on counterpoint and angular harmonies, overlapping singing, and strong muscular musicality that make his works more akin to opera than traditional Broadway.  Sondheim’s music doesn’t mirror the beautiful and hummable melodic sounds of Rogers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe (MY FAIR LADY) or Steven Schwartz (PIPPIN).

The winner of an Academy Award, eight Tony Awards (more than any other composer), eight Grammy Awards, and a Pulitzer Prize, Sondheim has been described as, “the greatest and perhaps best-known artist in the American musical theatre.”

Does this make him a universal favorite?  No. Far from it.  Broadway productions of his works sometimes lose money.  The average theatre-goer sometimes complains that due to the complexity of the music, and the difficulty of singing his songs, the words often get lost, and that his stories are often too abstract.  Sondheim, himself, has described SWEENEY TODD as “a black operetta in which only about 20% of the show is spoken.”

Other complaints are that his work is too dark.  SWEENEY TODD, for example, explores the psyche of a mad murderer, a social outcast, and is filled with killings, rape, judicial corruption and visual mayhem.

The tale of the demon barber of Fleet Street takes place in London in 1846.  Anthony Hope, a young sailor, arrives on a ship accompanied by Sweeny Todd,  who he rescued during a storm at sea.  The aloof, embittered, uneasy Todd has a secret of a past life that will soon unfold.  The duo is confronted by a mad Beggar Woman who seems to recognize Todd who is returning to England after fifteen years of unjust incarceration in an Australian penal colony.  Todd has revenge in mind, for not only the unfair banishment, but for having lost his wife due to the machinations of a corrupt judge.  What follows is a series of bizarre events in which Todd returns to his former barber shop to be told by a pie-shop keeper that he has a daughter who is now the ward of the judge and that his wife is dead.  Through a series of plot twists, some funny, others appalling, revenge is extracted and some semblance of justice is reached.

SWEENEY TODD opened on Broadway in 1979.  It is based on a 1973 play by Christopher Bond.  An instant hit and Tony Award winner, it has been revised several times on Broadway, had a long run in the West End in London, and was made into a film.

Great Lakes Theater’s production, under the focused direction of Victoria Bussert, is mesmerizing.  The staging is creative, the characterizations clearly etched, the intensity builds to a heart-thumping conclusion.

Jeff Herrman’s scenic designs and Mary Jo Doninger’s lighting create the right dark and ominous feel.  Charlotte Yetman’s costumes are era correct.

The cast is universally excellent.  Though he seems to overly scowl, Tom Ford makes for an uneasy, hell-bent-on-revenge Sweeney Todd.  He has a strong singing voice that has the right menacing sound.  This is a tormented man, who exudes his angst.  His well nuanced The Barber and His Wife clearly develops the exposition for the tale.

Sara Bruner is hilarious as Mrs. Lovett, the pie shop owner who has her romantic hooks set for Todd.  Her intent is absolutely consistent, she knows how to play for laughs, and that more than compensates for the fact that she is sometimes a little hard to understand.  Her musical versions of The Worst Pies in London and By The Seas delight.

Young Chris Cowan is pitch and performance perfect as Tobias, the shop clerk

of limited intelligence.  His Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir is delightful, and his rendition of Not While I’m Around is an emotional show stopper.

Zach Adkins creates Anthony into an appealing suitor for Todd’s daughter, Johanna.  His rendition of Johanna is poignant.  Clare Howes Eisentrout sings the role of Johanna well.

Darren Matthias is properly evil as Judge Turpin and M. A. Taylor builds a clear character as The Beadle.

Jodi Dominick makes for a believable Beggar Woman, Todd’s wife, who has been shocked into insanity.

Unfortunately, musical director Matthew Webb doesn’t keep the orchestra under control and often their sounds drown out the singers.  Since the lyrics are so important to the understanding of the plot, and some of the songs, such as A Little Priest are so clever, it’s a shame that they can’t easily be heard.  Some listeners may also have a little trouble cutting through the necessary Brit accents.  In spite of these hiccups, the story line is easy to follow.

Capsule judgement:  Great Lakes Theater’s SWEENEY TODD is a spell binding production of a Stephen Sondheim masterpiece.  Those turned off by violence, or who aren’t Sondheim aficionados, may not appreciate the show, but anyone interested in hearing complex music, well sung, encased in a well-honed script that is finely performed, will be turned on by this must see production.

SWEENEY TODD runs through November 2, 2013.  For tickets: 216-664-6064 or