Sweeney Todd at TUTS Shines With Inspired Direction and Choreography

Danny Rothman as Sweeney Todd and Sally Wilfert as Mrs. Lovett in the TUTS production of Sweeney Todd.
Danny Rothman as Sweeney Todd and Sally Wilfert as Mrs. Lovett in the TUTS production of Sweeney Todd. Photo by Laura Hagen

Stephen Sondheim's classic musical Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979) – yes, at only 44 years old, it can be certified a classic – is one of the great ones, like Show Boat, Porgy and Bess, South Pacific, Oklahoma, Guys and Dolls, West Side Story, and perhaps one or two other Sondheim works.

Sweeney is both parody and tragedy, an homage to the Victorian Grand Guignol with its torture and buckets of blood, a revenge play like those guts-on-their puffed-sleeve Elizabethan and Jacobean horrors by Webster, Kyd, Marlowe, and Shakespeare, but also an English music hall vaudeville, albeit a very dark one.

Sondheim and book writer Hugh Wheeler, using Christopher Bond's 1970 play, which itself was adapted from the wildly popular mid-Victorian “penny dreadfuls” published in London by Edward Lloyd, use all these genres in their masterful creation. But it is Sondheim's superb craftsmanship that fashions this tale into musical history. Sondheim overlays this story of unremitting revenge and obsession into the stuff of opera. Not by plot, but by music.

Conducted with love by Stephen W. Jones, the score is replete with resonant motifs and grand sweeping arias, as well as English ditties, Gilbert and Sullivan patter songs, and plain old Broadway belt. Sweeney soars musically like no other Sondheim show. Almost completely sung-through, there's an overwhelming arc to it, a roiling ocean of melody and pin-prick lyrics that delineate character and particular emotions that define both better than words.

Young-in-love Anthony's paean to the girl he spies at her window, “Johanna,” with its soft minor key modulations and skittish rhythm sounds exactly like what he's thinking – and feeling – in his first rush of love at first sight. The melody will repeat later in a marvelously dramatic quartet, then later still when Sweeney slashes the throat of one of his victims. Snatches, like the “Dies Irae,” appear whenever the townsfolk turn to us and spew Sweeney's fearsome story. Obsession, love, revenge swirl inside the music and burst forth when most needed.

Sondheim is abetted most admirably by the stunning orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, who has worked on every Sondheim show since Company (1970). Listen to Tobias' declaration of fidelity to Mrs. Lovett, “(Nothing's Gonna Harm You) Not While I'm Around.” With its harp underpinning and lush strings, it is as simple and clean as a lullaby, just what is needed to offset the gore upstage. This score is too good for Broadway.

And gore there is, spurting and staining as unsuspecting customers “go to their maker impeccably shaved,” then levered from the barber's chair, down a chute to the waiting hacks from Mrs. Lovett to finish them off, who then grinds the pieces “three times,” thereafter to bake them into her savory, and very popular, meat pies. Her shop on Fleet Street is now incredible successful, except the stench from her bake house has aroused the neighbors and local police.

Psychotic Sweeney will have his revenge; Mrs. Lovett for now, pining for Mr. T., has him to herself; and Johanna must be rescued from the asylum by Jonathan. Ah, but revenge is sweet, before it turns sour. Comeuppance comes swiftly. The evils of society trod over the oppressed and downtrodden, the wages of ill-formed justice favor the well-heeled, and madness finally eats itself alive. The young lovers may be saved, but the scars will most assuredly mar their happiness. No one escapes from such indifferent brutality. Who is Sweeney? The entire cast blasts out at us at the finale. Is he next to you? Is he you? He could be – can be – any one of us. Dark and grim, cold and steely as his “friends,” his razors, his executioners, yet gleaming and highly polished, Sweeney Todd is unlike any else in the canon.

Under the inspired direction and choreography from Theatre Under the Stars' artistic director Dan Knechtges, Sweeney gets justice and then some. This is as fragrant and atmospheric a Sweeney as can be. Characters suddenly pop out of the first tier boxes, scaring the patrons silly, or roam the aisles glaring at us as they sing of Sweeney's dark deeds. While Mark Morton's scenic design is minimal, it is terribly effective. Mrs. Lovett's pie shop and bakery are on a box on wheels so they can revolve quickly; there are platforms and scaffolding on the sides to remind us of the nascent industrial Victorian era (and a nod to the original iron-clad Hal Prince production). Really, what more is needed?

The background scrim projections by Mike Tutaj are literally gorgeous: a panorama of hazy London rooftops, a foggy dockside with rippling Thames, slum dwellings out of H.K. Browne. Colleen Grady's costumes bespeak oil and grime, or satin and muslin. It's beautiful work. And all is sumptuously illuminated by Jason Lyons with footlights and pin spots or fiery blood-red overlay. The stage pictures read like oil paintings, rich in detail and subtly painted. We always know where to look.

The TUTS' cast is well-nigh perfect, even knowing the iconic portrayals of Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury. Danny Rothman, who recently played Judge Turpin in the current Broadway revival of Sweeney, has revenge on speed-dial. His baritone is gruff and raspy, just right for this psycho out to avenge the world for the death of his wife and abduction of his child. When thwarted, he slumps on Lovett's ratty sofa, staring into the abyss. He's off into his own world. But when reunited with “My Friends,” he soars as he purrs conspiratorially to them, “And we're together. And we'll do wonders. Won't we?...You shall drip rubies.” He chills us with his utter cold delight.

As amoral Mrs. Lovett, Sally Wilfert steps right into the limelight as if descending from some skewed Gilbert & Sullivan land. With a head of ginger curls, she delightfully batty, a Cockney devil with rolling pin, slapping her greasy dough and plucking some bug off it or smashing another with her hand before handling the pastry. Watch her little mincing steps before Sondheim's famous comic catalog number, “A Little Priest.” Delightful. Warm and motherly toward orphan Tobias (a particularly affecting August Emerson), she turns murderous without dropping a stitch when the boy suspects the awful truth. She's delicious whatever she's doing – abetting the murderer or dreaming of a jaunty holiday with him “By the Sea.”

The pretty young lovers, Anthony (Sam Gravitte) and damsel-in-distress Johanna (Leslie Jackson), resemble any other musical ingenues, but here their characters are saved by Sondheim's splendid setting. His music makes them special. Gravitte's rendition of “Johanna” is haunting, soft yet ardent, as is his duet with her, “Kiss Me.” Jackson is lovely, but her diction turns to mush when Sondheim goes tricky with his patented patter. Sadly, the subtleties of his diamond-bright lyrics are nowhere to be heard. (Also at fault is the cavernous Hobby Center which eats sound like Jabba the Hutt.)

The lecherous Judge Turpin, who has all but imprisoned Sweeney's daughter in attempts to marry her himself, should have a mustache to twirl, but Brian Mathis makes the most out of this despicable lurid character. When he is dispatched by Sweeney, the audience applauded. The toadying Beadle Bamford travels on his own oil slick, and Mark Ivy – a recurring and welcomed actor at TUTS and Stages – slides smoothly through the role. The blackmailing charlatan Adolfo Pirelli was preened nicely by Benjamin Robert Lurye, while The Beggar Woman, who shadows the play like a demented Greek Chorus, careens from madness to sympathy under Courtney Markowitz' interpretation.

Stephen Sondheim writes musicals, not documentaries. While Sweeney Todd is bleak and unrelenting, it has enough glimmers of comedy that peek through to remind us this is a Broadway show. Without the antics of Mrs. Lovett, this show would be a true downer. But the combo of Todd and Lovett – and Sondheim and Knechtges and crew – is unbeatable. Sweeney lives again at TUTS. Go see a classic!

Performances continue through October 29 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For more information, call 713-558-8887 or visit $40-$139.
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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover