The stage is crowded and full of shadows as the current and very impressive Ferndale Repertory Theatre production of Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street begins. A thin haze that extends over the seats greets the audience returning for the second act: It symbolizes not the romantic London fog, but the mid-19th century London smog, a killing potion of industrial pollution. It's a dark Dickensian city of such extreme poverty and wealth that a few decades later H.G. Wells projected it into a future of humanity split into different species, the Morlocks and the Eloi, in The Time Machine. That novel, like this play, involves cannibalism.
The story of Sweeney Todd was first told in this same mid-19th century city. An anonymous serial novel and subsequent London stage melodrama depicted a murderous barber whose victims supplied the substance for a baker's meat pies. At least six film and TV versions followed. In his 1973 play, Christopher Bond added the theme of revenge.
Both the music and the story of this 1979 musical by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler were immediately controversial but eventually very influential. Sweeney Todd is credited with beginning the "grusical" trend in stage musical stories, such as The Phantom of the Opera and Little Shop of Horrors. Its operatic use of song rather than spoken dialogue to tell the story was even more widely adopted.
This story concerns Benjamin Barker (played by Craig Benson), a skilled barber whose young wife was raped by the prominent Judge Turpin (Steve Nobles). To cover his crime, Turpin banished Barker to the penal colony of Australia on a trumped up charge. But as the play begins 15 years later, Barker returns to London with a new name: Sweeney Todd.
His goal is to find his wife. But the baker still in business downstairs from his former barber shop (Mrs. Lovett, played by Elisabeth Harrington) tells him his wife poisoned herself, so Todd's intent turns to revenge.
He resumes business as a barber catering to gentlemen, to get Judge Turpin under his razor. He has him but loses him, and then spreads his vengeance to everyone with money and power. The bodies of his victims provide Mrs. Lovett with the means to turn her failing bakery into a great success, due to the demand for her meat pies. There is of course much mischief, misdirection and misadventure ahead.
The story also involves Todd's daughter Johanna (Brandy Rose), who is now Judge Turpin's ward and intended bride. Anthony Hope (Philip De Roulet) is the young sailor who falls in love with her. Adolfo Pirelli (Luke Sikora) is a competing barber who threatens to expose Todd, and Tobias Ragg (Kyle Ryan) is his assistant who becomes a confidant to Mrs. Lovett. Beadle Bamford (Craig Waldvogel) is Turpin's enforcer, Jonas Fogg (Ethan Edmonds) is the asylum keeper, and there's a mysterious mad beggar woman (Elena Tessler).
This Ferndale Rep production is a success in virtually every facet, including the singing. Craig Benson has a role that allows him to expand, dominating the stage. Well-established as a singer, Elisabeth Harrington proves to be an astonishing actor who inhabits the role of Mrs. Lovett physically and fully, without yielding to the temptation to overdo it. In fact all the actors show this discipline, a credit to director Dianne Zuleger.
Steve Nobles finds humanity within the twisted creepiness of Judge Turpin. Brandy Rose and Philip De Roulet are stage lovers reunited from last spring's The Magic Flute at HSU, and their chemistry adds credence to an otherwise formulaic romance. The young Toby Ragg is in some ways the audience's representative, and Kyle Ryan takes us on his journey convincingly. With his pure and powerful voice, Craig Waldvogel has probably the most memorable musical moment of the show.
Some Sondheim fans consider this his best work, and the ensemble singers and small but tasty live orchestra serve the music well. This complex production has a unified result due to (among others) Daniel C. Nyiri (scenic design), Greta Stockwell (lighting), Dan Stockwell (sound), Ginger Gene (producer,) and director Zuleger. The makeup and hair design by Brandy Rose is an especially notable contribution.
This version of Sweeney Todd (which includes a revealing scene cut from the Broadway production) runs three hours with intermission. Not everyone will catch all the lyrics (I didn't), but the story is clear enough. The lyrics have a strong political edge ("See your razor gleam, Sweeney/Feel how well it fits/As it floats over the throats/of hypocrites"), but even if they go by quickly, they convey the bitter irony. The humor is dark, the laughter often nervous. The theme of revenge is so clear however that some in the audience cheered the deaths of the bad guys.
Even from our lovely corner of the planet we can observe the growing chasm between the wealthy few and the struggling many. This story from a distant context resonates today, though the simplifications of a revenge drama may be an ominous response.
Sweeney Todd continues weekends at Ferndale Repertory Theatre through Aug. 28.