The Human Race Theatre Company opens its 30th anniversary season with a wonderfully immersive and impressive production of composer Stephen Sondheim and librettist Hugh Wheeler’s 1979 Tony Award-winning masterpiece “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”
Based on Christopher Bond’s play of the same name, “Sweeney Todd” marvelously intertwines horror, humor, love, regret, revenge, and suspense into its Victorian account of a crazed barber/ex-convict destroying the society that cheated him. The disturbing, cannibalistic nature of Sweeney’s dastardly deeds, fueled by his kooky accomplice Mrs. Nellie Lovett, a pie shop proprietor in Fleet Street, always provides a riveting centerpiece for this ingenious thriller. However, director Scott Stoney refreshingly opts for more than a mere bloody fright fest. By digging deeper into characterization and the humanity of those inhabiting Sweeney’s dark world, Stoney creates one of the most relevant versions of the show I have seen heightened by a striking intimacy that can only be felt within the confines of the Loft Theatre. In fact, due to certain moments staged on platforms located on opposite sides of the venue, the material has never felt more immediate or engrossing. Some organizations would scoff at the notion of producing such an unnerving musical with an approachable mindset, but Stoney’s boldness, insisting the audience follow every morsel of the action, invites an experience unlike any other. But you wouldn’t want to be kept at a distance anyway considering the fantastic attributes of his vocally sublime cast.
Resonant baritone Jamie Cordes, featured as sailor Anthony Hope in the Human Race’s 1996 production of “Sweeney Todd” at the Victoria Theatre starring Stoney, understands the fine line associated with portraying the complex Sweeney, one of the most challenging roles ever conceived. If he aimed too psychotic he’d wallow in overblown histrionics. If he aimed too melodramatic he’d wallow in maudlin shallowness. Thankfully, the evil he concocts is a fetching brew of creepily confident swagger, authoritative menace, distressed paranoia, wounded remorse, and disturbing joy. Toward the end of Act 1, Cordes respectively brings Sweeney’s magnetism and terror to the compelling forefront with splendid renditions of the ravishing ballad “Pretty Women” (terrifically shared with David McDonald as the corrupt Judge Turpin who sent Sweeney to jail on a trumped-up charge and adopted his daughter Johanna while he was incarcerated) and utterly alarming “Epiphany,” one of the scariest songs in the musical theatre canon tailor-made to rip through the fourth wall. Fine comedienne Rebecca Watson (Broadway’s “By Jeeves”) is equally razor sharp as Mrs. Lovett, the Sondheimian equivalent to Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. There’s a comical world-weariness in her portrayal befitting Lovett’s down-and-out nature (she’s responsible for “The Worst Pies in London”), but Watson specifically magnetizes as the deceitful Lovett lures Sweeney deeper into vengeance if only to secure his love. I haven’t seen an actress skillfully weigh Lovett’s self-absorbed matters of pleasure and profit since being blown away by Imelda Staunton’s fiery portrayal in London’s West End four years ago.
Elsewhere in principal roles, strong tenor Zack Steele is an engagingly sensitive and lovestruck Anthony (his rendition of “Johanna” is beautifully emotive), Kimberly Hessler, well-paired with Steele, supplies lilting operatic strains as the lovely, sheltered Johanna (her rendition of the gorgeous “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” holds many colors), Craig McEldowney is a deliciously flamboyant and spiteful Adolfo Pirelli, DJ Plunkett brilliantly conveys tenderness, vulnerability, spunk, and dread as Pirelli’s humble assistant Tobias Ragg (his moving rendition of “Not While I’m Around” is a genuine heartbreaker), Aaron Vega is a delightfully snide and vindictive Beadle Bamford (his clear falsetto is put to great use in “Ladies in Their Sensitivities”), Christine Zavakos is a playful yet foreboding Beggar Woman, and Scott Hunt (Tobias in the 1996 production) is an appropriately malevolent Jonas Fogg. The fantastic and impactful ensemble, connected through Tracey Bonner’s character-conscious choreography and blessed with phenomenal vocal power as well as a unified versatility to fluidly transform whether as mourning Londoners or hysteric lunatics, consists of Gina Handy, Drew Helton, Cassi Mikat, Nathan Robert Pecchia, David Shough, Sherri L. Sutter (Johanna in 1996 production), and Kandis Wean.
Additionally, scenic designer Dan Gray’s efficient, revolving set is bolstered by a throng of windows evoking the Industrial Revolution. Janet G. Powell’s attractive period costumes distinctly range from drab to swanky (notice Sweeney, Lovett and Tobias’ fancy attire at the top of Act 2). John Rensel’s lighting design marvelously captures varying moods, specifically sending chills up my spine when a barrage of lights ominously beam through the windows at the conclusion of Sweeney and Lovett’s cheerfully eerie “A Little Priest” signaling the beginning of the end for customers along Fleet Street. Music director Sean Michael Flowers leads an eight-piece band that occasionally feels distant but is well-balanced nonetheless despite a few timing glitches on opening night. Jay Brunner’s unsettling sound design aids in spooky ambiance but was also shaky on opening night.
One of the production’s final, lasting images involves a young man contemplating an evil plunge into darkness. It is a chilling reminder giving credence to Sondheim’s probing question which should never be taken lightly: “Isn’t that Sweeney there beside you?” After all, anyone at any time has the potential to simply snap. Attend this tale and rediscover why.
“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – A Musical Thriller” continues through Oct. 2 at the Loft Theatre of the Metropolitan Arts Center, 126 N. Main St., Dayton. Act One: 90 minutes; Act Two: 60 minutes. Performances are 8 p.m. Sept. 15-17, 22-24, and 29-Oct. 1; 7 p.m. Sept. 13-14, 20-21, 27-28; and 2 p.m. Sept. 18, 25 and Oct. 2. Tickets are $12-$50 (prices vary depending on performance date). There are a limited number of $12 side area seats available for each performance. For tickets or more information, call (937) 228-3630 or visit www.humanracetheatre.org or ticketcenterstage.com. Patrons are advised the production contains adult language and themes.