This has turned out to be a surprisingly lovely spring, at least right now, trees starting to green as the sunlight slants through them, redbud and dogwood blooming simultaneously, which doesn’t always happen. Then, for contrast, there’s what’s inside Tower Grove Abbey these days.
Sweeney Todd, brought to us by Stray Dog Theatre, is a dark, disturbing story, told with respect if not glamour. It’s dusty, bloody, messy, another manifestation of Dickensian London. From the first note, the hair almost stands up on the back of one’s neck from the reminder of how musically serious and dramatic the show is. And SDT gives the show its full due.
Todd, who’s returned from prison, seeks revenge from the judge who sent him off because he lusted after Todd’s wife. Mrs. Lovett, a pie shop proprietor and Todd’s landlady who has no idea who Todd really is, knows the story. She says the wife is dead and the judge has adopted Todd’s daughter as his ward. As long as Todd’s after the judge, he thinks he might as well go for his beadle, here a sort of constable rather than a church official. He’s determined – oh, is he determined. And since he’s a barber, he has the method and the means as well as the motive. He becomes the demon barber of Fleet Street.
The barber is Jonathan Hey. Hey’s Todd is more menacing than totally mad, a nearly-always restrained performance, particularly notable for the sort of absolute control that Todd exhibits during his most extreme behavior. His face would make a neurosurgeon at work look like Chico Marx. Lavonne Byers plays Mrs. Lovett broadly, with lots of physical comedy as a contrast to Todd’s character, and it works well. Good work, too, from Gerry Love as the judge and young Connor Johnson as Tobias, the orphan that ends up working for Mrs. Lovett. Overall, in fact, it’s an excellent ensemble, sounding absolutely wonderful and moving through the house, as SDT productions often do, with panache.
The gory-ness of this show is considerably less than some I’ve seen, and the barber chair that’s a focus of more elaborate productions is here a Queen Anne style armchair that just turns around. Rob Lippert’s set makes good use of the height of this stage. Ryan Moore’s costumes feel suitably dusty, with mostly very subdued colors and stains here and there. The band, which is not visible, is eight members, including a cello and French horn, the size of said group making the point that this show, like all Sondheim, is about the music (and that includes his great lyrics). Please pay particular attention to the staging of the second act’s opening number of “God, That’s Good” - the movement, the faces of the ensemble, and rhymes like “coriander” and “makes the gravy grander”. Irresistible. Justin Been directs the show and keeps things moving at a swell clip.
Please note that tickets are in demand for this show, and some performances are already sold out, so move with alacrity. Also, SDT’s audience arrives early, easily taking the trophy in that department among local theatres. (They also don’t do walking ovations, and thank you very much for that!) Be aware; this may create some logistical problems for a few people.
through April 22
Stray Dog Theatre
Tower Grove Abbey