Horror’s favorite demon barber has returned to the environs of Fleet Street: His razor is finely sharpened and ready; the glint in his eyes decidedly mad. Welcome back to London, Sweeney Todd. Reveling in insane glory at the Adelphi Theatre, the sinister shaver is singing his heart out while cutting many a throat. Stephen Sondheim’s musical masterpiece is brilliantly staged in this production, bolstered by two incredible performances: Michael Ball as Sweeney, and Imelda Staunton as amoral pie-maker, Mrs. Lovett. Forget the others who have previously played the parts. Wipe away the Tim Burton film starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter; even let go of Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury who created the roles on Broadway. Ball and Staunton blow them out of the water.
This revival of the show is set in the 1930s, rather than in the Victorian Age. The famous screeching factory whistle, inaugurated in the Cariou-Lansbury incarnation, works for either period. Its scream is an exclamation point, punctuating the harshness of either/both eras. What initially looks like English fog, in this version, later is perceived as air pollution. The murky filtered lighting reflects the prevailing ethical contamination. Sweeney is a wronged man hungry for revenge, and his alliance with unethical-yet-resourceful business woman Mrs. Lovett is a union of common needs. There is, however, a kink in their relationship. Mrs. Lovett is enamored of Todd, but the feelings aren’t reciprocated. When they become business partners, she cooking up the flesh of his victims to unknowing, but enthusiastic, diners, the delusional woman conjures up romantic scenarios with “happy” endings. The amazing chemistry between Ball and Staunton is perhaps the show’s greatest strength, yet both actors deliver unique takes on their respective roles, and do marvelous interpretations of the songs.
Imelda Staunton embodies the complexities of a loopy, smitten, crafty, and strangely maternal woman. She embraces the character’s lusty love for Sweeney, even though he still carries a torch for his lost wife. Ball brings his own heat and fever to the title character. When reunited with his cutting blade and declares his arm “complete,” one gets the sensation that another part of the anatomy is also feeling most satisfied.
In general the cast is excellent, the only weaknesses are the performers playing the young lovers Anthony and Johanna. Luke Brady as Anthony loses command of the beautiful ballad “Johanna,” and seems oblivious to the malevolence surrounding his beloved. Lucy May Barker, as the object of his desire, has an unappealing voice that strains and distracts.
Aside from those criticisms, the show is stellar; engaging the audience from the outset as the ensemble assembles on stage while audience members are taking their seats. There is in-character chatting among the performers while the theatre-goers settle in and get their attention drawn to the stage; the scene is set in a sort of interactive way.
It is always grand to “attend the tale of Sweeney Todd,” and this fabulous production of it is the stuff of legend.
Sheila M. Merritt, reporting from London.