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Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, slices its way into West Palm Beach


Michael Mckenzie & Shane R. Tanner

The gruesome musical Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, slices its way into West Palm Beach at the Don & Ann Brown Theatre. Set in the year 1846, the tale of Sweeney Todd is an adaptation of the 1973 Christopher Bond play based on a 19th century British penny dreadful in which a London barber is driven to murder after a malevolent judge takes his wife and child from him, and sentences him to serve time in a penal colony. The barber returns to his home years later, unrecognized and under the assumed name of Sweeney Todd, to find his wife gone and his teenage daughter now the ward of the judge. Sweeney plots his revenge, and forms a cutthroat partnership with Mrs. Lovett, the enterprising owner of a faltering pie shop. Upstairs from her pie shop, Sweeney reopens his barber shop and there, in the words of Sondheim, “He shaves the faces of gentlemen who never thereafter were heard of again.” Soon, Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett are serving up the tastiest meat pies in London in her suddenly successful little shop. But no dish could ever be tastier to Sweeney Todd than the vengeance he so hungrily awaits to deliver with the help of his trusty razors.

Featuring music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Hugh Wheeler, Sweeney Todd opened on Broadway at the Uris Theatre (now the Gershwin) on March 1, 1979. The production, directed by Harold Prince, ran for 557 performances and won a total of eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

An innovative revival of Sweeney Todd, directed by John Doyle, was staged by the Watermill Theatre in England, transferring to the Trafalgar Studios in July of 2004, and then to the New Ambassadors Theatre, where it ran for a limited engagement that closed on February 5, 2005. In Doyle’s production, the cast was reduced to 10 main characters, and the chorus and orchestra were eliminated. The 10 main characters remained on stage throughout the entire show and played all the instruments themselves. New orchestrations by Sarah Travis accommodate the limited instrumentation. Sets, props and costuming were scaled down as well. A single set, and simplified staging, became more representation than literal. Despite mixed audience response, it received a Tony Award, a Drama Desk Award and an Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Revival of a Musical. I saw this version and absolutely loathed it even in the midst of admiring the versatility of the talents of the cast. I am still scarred by the image of Mrs. Lovett clumping across stage is two-inch high heels, and ripped black, fishnet stockings while she played the tuba! It bears mentioning Doyle’s revival because it has left an imprint on future versions of the show, traces of which are present in this Palm Beach Dramaworks production.

With 13 actors and 5 live musicians, this production uses a smaller cast and orchestra than the original. Sondheim’s score is played beautifully by musical director Manny Schvartzman, but I miss the thickness of the sound produced by more instruments. Likewise, though the mic system is flawless in volume and clarity, there is a fullness that is achieved by more ensemble voices that is missing. I noticed it most in the higher voices – both male and female.

The dark set that is the center piece for this tale is dramatically layered with shadows from above, filtering through the dust and soot of a dreary Industrial aged London. And the opening scene gives us a foul taste of what that means for the lower class as we see workers treated like chattel. Lighting, direction and acting are married together perfectly at the top of the show when Sweeney Todd (Shane Tanner) first arrives back in London. The light on actor Tanner’s face allows us to see his intent and feel his turmoil as he weaves the story of what has brought him here. and changed him from the man he used to be. Sweeney doesn’t just arrive as a murderous villain. His madness is born from the hopelessness of his circumstances. Directors frequently burry the actor and this scene in dismal lighting as they set the feel of London for the audience. Note that the director has already done this in the opening. If the audience doesn’t catch the basis of the tale of Sweeney Todd, all the clever foreshadowing in the world is lost. This production wisely unwinds the tale clearly and slowly from the very beginning just as it should be done.

An imposing looking Tanner is in fine singing voice for the role of Todd, and explores the subtleties of his character rather than playing it just as a heartless ghoul. His physical stature and booming baritone voice look and sound threatening enough to take you on this terrifying journey with him. I wanted just a bit more of a threatening quality from him when he is singing directly to the audience in the song “Epiphany”. With menacingly written lines such as “I want you bleeders. You sir, anybody! Not one man. No, nor ten men. Nor a hundred can assuage me. I will HAVE YOU!” he could have the audience feeling as though they are at his mercy.

Speaking of menacing, the feel might have been aided by some technical tweaks. The placement of the trapdoor through which the bodies fall is not close enough to the barber chair, and it sits at an angle that makes it awkward for actors to fall off of the chair onto it as would a corpse. The audience is aware of actors adjusting their bodies as they fall forward in an attempt to compensate. Call me old-fashioned but I miss the blood and gore as well when the throats are slit. This production doesn’t use blood, and it just takes some of the scary out of it

Doyle’s revival put a different spin on Mrs. Lovett that may not meet with everyone’s approval. She once was played as a daffy older woman whose seemingly quirky sweetness gives way to a surprisingly dark side. After Patti Lupone did the role she is presented as more vibrant and attractive, and simply pragmatic. A change in costuming from frumpy to corseted, and tousled white pigtails, changed to very styled, died red curls are added to a knowing attitude that make her a very different energy. Ruthie Stevens comes off as smart and funny as Mrs. Lovett. Her loud, clear voice occasionally even sounds like a dead ringer for Lupone’s. Her mugging impatience in the parlor scene is memorable, but I would’ve liked more emotion from her during “Not While I’m Around” when she realizes she has to get rid of Toby. Mrs. Lovett is genuinely very fond of Toby, and it felt as though Stevens found him expendable. I also wanted more of a departure from her normal character during “A Little Priest”, as it is in that moment that the delightfully demonic sides of Mrs. Lovett and Sweeny Todd meet for the first time.

Paul Louis Lessard is a wondrous Anthony, deftly capturing his youthful exuberance and ardor.  Blessed with a beautiful tenor voice, the fair-haired Lessard sings the role better than I have ever heard it sung, and remains utterly present in his scenes. This can be no easy task as the duet with Johanna “Kiss Me” is not written in a way that allows either of them to relax into their characters. He is solicitous of Johanna while maintaining a hopeful if naïve vision of the world. He is paired with a lovely Jennifer Molly Bell as the fragile Johanna.

Though pleasant looking and well appointed, Judge Turpin is a man painfully past his prime whose lust for his teenaged ward Johanna is inherently creepy. Though the role is well acted by Michael McKenzie in this production, I found Judge Turpin almost too pleasant in the song “Johanna’” in which Judge Turpin sings about the object of his desire while attempting to purge himself of his desires of the flesh. The staging has the kneeling Judge stripped to the waist, while torturously engaging in self-flagellation. When done correctly it should make you want to bathe because it is so creepy. He was just not enough at risk in that moment.

Shelly Keelor sings and acts the heck out of the demanding role of the Beggar Woman. Alas she is probably the youngest, prettiest looking Beggar Woman I’ve ever seen, and is in need of different make-up and a different wig to give us the crazed, filthy beggar woman one moment plaintively calling out for “Alms for a miserable woman”, and the next making lascivious offers of sex for money.

I loved Alex Mansoori as Pirelli! The character of Pirelli speaks and sings with an exaggerated Italian accent, and his vocal solo lines are written in the gushing tenor style of the Italian Street Song. Mansoori has the ideal voice for this style. He smoothly pulls his high notes back to a mezzo-forte that makes his sound the perfect juxtaposition to Sweeney’s dramatic approach to high notes.

Evan Jones is enjoyable as Tobias in “Not While I’m Around”, but in other portions of the show seems to struggle with his low notes. The Act 2 number “God, That’s Good” is usually choreographed to feature Toby’s energy and dance skills. Perhaps if that number had been choreographed with real dancing it would have provided him a chance to show off more of those skills. This becomes more difficult with smaller casts however.

A talented Jim Ballard is oddly directed as the Beadle. The Beadle is normally a portly, fawning, lackey to Judge Turpin. The original play by Bond was a harsh commentary on the class system. He and the judge together represent the pampered upper-middle class, but in this production the Beadle is a muscular, leather clad, street thug. Through no fault of the actor, the over sexualization of the character is uncomfortably contrived. This role is also a high tenor, and it was apparent that the baritone Ballard had to sing some notes in falsetto rather than full voice and/or down the octave. It would by no means be the first time that a new spin has been placed on this production by a director however. Those who enjoy a fresh take on a familiar script may indeed find themselves at odds with the purist who likes their classics untouched. But, what great fun can be had in the friendly battle over the best version to be had. And art is about the act of creation.  One spoiler-alert:  pay careful attention to a surprise twist at the very end of the show that markedly departs from the original.  However you feel about this version of the show, Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett will be waiting for you with a meat pie and a leather strop at Palm Beach Dramaworks!

Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim was born on March 22, 1930. He has been described as “the greatest and perhaps best-known artist in the American musical theatre.” In addition to Sweeney Todd, his work includes the musicals A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Do I Hear a Waltz?, Follies, Pacific Overtures, Anyone Can Whistle, Merrily We Roll Along, Into the Woods, Sunday In The Park With George, A Little Night Music, Passion and Assassins. He also wrote the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy. He is the recipient of seven Tony Awards (more than any other composer), two Grammy Awards, the 1990 Academy Award for Best Song for “Sooner or Later” from Dick Tracy, the 1985 Pulitzer Prize in Drama for Sunday In the Park With George, the Kennedy Center Honors for Lifetime Achievement in 1993 and a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre in 2008.

Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street will be appearing at the Don & Ann Brown Theatre through August 6, 2017. The theatre is located at 201 Clematis Street, West Palm Beach, FL 33401. Palm Beach Dramaworks is a professional, not-for-profit theatre company hiring local and non-local Equity and non-Equity actors and actresses. For more information you can reach them by phone at 561-514-4042, 561-514-4042, or online at

Sweeney Todd: Shane R. Tanner*
Mrs. Lovettt: Ruthie Stevens*
Anthony: Paul Louis Lessard*
Johanna: Jennifer Molly Bell*
Tobias: Evan Jones
Judge Turpin: Michael McKenzie*
Beadle: Jim Ballard*
Beggar Woman: Shelley Keelor
Pirelli: Alex Mansoori*
Jonas Fogg/Ensemble: Terry Hardcastle*
Ensemble: Christopher Holloway, Hannah Richter*, Victoria Lauzun

Director: Clive Cholerton
Music Director: Manny Schvartzman
Scenic Design: Michael Amico
Lighting Design: Donald Edmund Thomas
Sound Design: Brad Pawlak
Costumes: Brian O’Keefe
Wigs/Make-up: Jane Lynch
Stage Manager: James Danford*

*Indicates a member of Actor’s Equity Association, the union of