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Sweeney Todd Features Two Fierce Leads

Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street; music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by Hugh Wheeler, Hangar Theatre through August 7
What the Hangar’s production of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd offers is a killer duo in the leads. Nik Walker as Todd and Donna Lynne Champlin as Mrs. Lovett serve up the passion and the deranged comedy as if the roles were written for them.
Walker is a lean, hungry Todd, seething with one purpose, vengeance against the Judge who robbed him of wife and child and sending him to exile. His Todd is sharply honed, a stiletto. His baritone is commanding and chilling, riding the soaring Sondheim score with ease. Cross him at your peril.
Champlin’s Mrs. Lovett is both over-the-top and grounded in amoral practicality. One can almost see the wheels turning as she plots and pivots to keep Todd, the man she yearns for, in her clutches. She tosses off the comedy with flair, particularly adept at detonating a laugh from remarks which deflate her partner-in-crime’s obsessive focus.
The evening’s high point is the first act climax, as the barber’s revenge is interrupted and his rage strikes out to mass murder (“they all deserve to die”) in a scorching “Epiphany”. Followed by Mrs. Lovett’s brilliant idea to recycle the corpses into meat pies, the brilliant patter list-song, “A Little Priest.” Champlin and Walker make a rollicking, devious dance of it. (Ironically, it is the closest the two get to a love duet in the musical.)
They are supported by a musically strong cast, particularly Vincent David as the (oily) Beadle, Justin Lee Miller as Judge Turpin, Joe Montoya as Toby, Andrew Arrow as Pirelli and Jamila Sabares-Klemm as The Beggar Woman.
Montoya leans more on the scrappy street urchin than the usual naïf, however, he turns in a plangent “Nothing’s Going to Harm You,” a streak of goodness in the stinking, sulfurous air of London’s Victorian underbelly as depicted by Sondheim and his book writer Hugh Wheeler.
Anthony Hope and Joanna are the innocent ingenues thrust into the wrong play. Nathan Karnak and Kyla Stone play them with the necessary romantic delusion, but neither of their voices quite meet the score’s demands.
Sondheim fashioned Sweeney Todd as a ‘musical thriller,’ his chance to write a horror movie for the stage, with an almost continuous underscore). His model is in part Bernard Herman (Psycho, Vertigo). This puts extra weight on the orchestral accompaniment, and the Hangar’s six-person orchestra struggles at times, the sound is thin, though they do manage the propulsive undertow beautifully. In both vocals and accompaniment, the recurring “Ballad of Sweeney Todd” proves too vapid to raise chills. (It may also be the drawback of an outside production, where the sound is not reflected back by auditorium walls.)
The disconnect in this production is the scenic design (by Diggle), an immense LED-lights sign of “MEAT” dominates the stage throughout. It lies against a utilitarian, metal and pipe set which indicates a factory setting somewhere in the 20th century, but looks more like a giant deli counter.
Talk about hammering on a metaphor. Further the sign not only changes color, but it goes into a light chase as the plot heats up.
It’s true enough that the Hal Prince helmed original transplanted a factory into Broadway’s Uris stage, with the announced intent to create a Brechtian epic overlay of the dehumanization of the Industrial Age. (It created spectacle rather than critique, though).Further, even though class is a subject of Sondheim’s lyrics (particularly the middle-class desires of Mrs. Lovett), it is not the center. The musical’s style is encapsulated the opening lyrics (“Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.”) Sondheim always preferred the show to be intimate.
The design ignores the musical style and shape of the show, offering a flashy Pomo riff that is both tired and out of synch.
Sarita P Fellows does better with the costuming, which also deliberately mixes Victorian with (mid?) 20th century, particularly in the use of factory style jumpsuits. They are kinky and individualistic enough not to overwhelm the show’s characters, though the (commedia?) style of Judge Turpin’s robe and collar make the man seem less dangerous. And sexy as Todd’s initial brown velvet duster is, in retrospect it feels a little overly rich for his circumstances.
The movement is somewhat cramped by a stage that is overbalanced to one side with its platforming (also its painful to watch the actors have to duck to come onto stage beneath the meat sign.) Director Shura Gat and choreographer Ben Hobbs do manage some cunning stage pictures with the ensemble crawling and clumping at times, especially striking in the first section of the Signor Pirelli scene.
Altogether, a muddled production but brilliant lead performances and a generally musically adept cast. Well worth the trip just to see (and hear) Walker and Champlin.

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