Review: TexARTS Theater's Sweeney Todd

Despite fruitless tweaks to the storytelling, this is a tale that still has bite

Matt Wade as Sweeney Todd and Sarah Fleming Walker as Mrs. Lovett
Matt Wade as Sweeney Todd and Sarah Fleming Walker as Mrs. Lovett (Photo by April Paine Photography)

Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's angry, savage, and deeply cynical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a brilliant and most unconventional musical.

In it, a despondent barber is out to avenge his wrongful imprisonment and the senseless destruction of his fledgling family. Living in seedy 19th century London, Todd whittles away at his clientele with a straight-edge razor as the fruits of his labor are processed into meat pies and sold in the shop below by Todd's delightfully demented landlady, Mrs. Lovett. Todd lies in wait until the judge that set this madness in motion, now lecherous guardian of Todd's daughter, Johanna, walks through his door to receive the closest shave he's ever had.

The show's eccentricities don't stop with a homicidal hero or the tendency to gravitate toward the macabre. Most characters are similarly impervious to goodness and redemption. Its songs are often void of melody and lack that hummable quality found desirable in conventional show tunes. And, with its blatant disregard for anything resembling choreography and 85% of its melodramatic story being sung, the musical is damn near an opera. So much so that Austin Opera will stage its own production in 2023.

Still, Sweeney is not eccentric enough for TexARTS Theater. In its production, director Kasey RT Graham and designers Donna Coughlin (scenic) and Aaron Kubacak (costume) transport the play to the 21st century. Graham also reduces the sizable dramatis personae to a cast of eight, with many doubling up on roles and most populating ensemble numbers like "God, That's Good!" and "Pirelli's Miracle Elixir." He also embraces gender-blind casting and replaces the orchestra and the show's full orchestration with just music director Lyn Koenning on keyboard and on stage.

This musical has accommodated many creative choices since its Broadway premiere in 1979, including a staging in London's oldest pie and mash shop and a revival that gave all actors instruments. But none of this production's innovations inform the story or enhance the storytelling. Though a limited cast enables the players to move easily through a performance space cluttered with assorted curios not particularly specific to this play's settings, the double-casting decisions are often a distraction and the sacrificed vocal and instrumental support do not do Sondheim's music justice. Worse, they often leave the featured actors naked and untethered on stage while performing their intimate solos and harmonically complicated duets.

Fortunately, these actors are pros and have no trouble holding our attention in a vise grip throughout the production, which is facilitated by Lucinda Culver's dramatic lighting design and spotlight operator Shelby Foshay's pinpoint accuracy. Matt Wade as Sweeney smolders as his pathological obsession with revenge lies in wait and is never far from the surface. His intense rendition of the disturbing "Epiphany," where he comes to terms with his morbid calling and then rails against the universe, is riveting. Riveting, too, is Sarah Fleming Walker's turn as Mrs. Lovett. She manages the musical's drama and pitch-black gallows humor with equal aplomb. The musical number "By the Sea," where Mrs. Lovett charmingly fantasizes about going on holiday with a brooding, nonresponsive Sweeney, nearly steals the show.

Other featured performers – Alex Rudd and Sarah Zeringue as innocent romantic leads Anthony and Johanna, respectively; Daniel Winkler as Mrs. Lovett's sweet and simple assistant, Tobias; Ray DeJohn as the deeply disturbed Judge Turpin; and Christian Erben as both his henchman, Beadle Bamford, and asylum operator, Jonas Fogg – are similarly superb in voice and presentation. Rachel Pallante, as the crazed Beggar Woman and rival barber Adolfo Pirelli, is particularly engaging and brings remarkable dimensionality to both roles.

Sweeney Todd, as written, demands much from the company and the audience. This TexARTS production demands even more, but it is hard to argue with the recommendation served up in the show's opening lyric: Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.

TexARTS Theater's Sweeney Todd

2300 Lohmans Spur #160, Lakeway, 512/852-9079,
Through Feb. 27
Running time: 2 hr., 30 min.

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