Sweeney Todd: The Many Local Faces of That Bloody Barber

The original 1979 production of Stephen Sondheim's musical masterpiece, Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, ran in Broadway's largest theater, seating almost 2,000, for 576 performances, and garnered eight Tony awards. It had two national tours, and is sometimes performed by opera companies — Houston's own Grand Opera in 1984 was the first to do so. Nothing could attest more to its enduring appeal than the fact that it opened in two Houston theaters this past weekend, and closed its run in a third.

Its artistic heritage may stem from Paris's Grand Guignol Theatre, which captivated audiences in the '20s and '30s by presenting gory horror shows. Or much further back with dramas such as Titus Andronicus, or even Hamlet, a revenge play that ends with the stage strewn with corpses, as is the case here.

Sweeney Todd is the assumed name of a young barber falsely imprisoned for 15 years so that the judge could ravish Todd's beautiful wife. Todd returns to London to seek his daughter Johanna, now 16, and to wreak vengeance on the judge. He joins forces with Mrs. Lovett, who sells meat pies, and has an entrepreneurial idea in regard to disposing of the slain bodies. At the end of Act One, Todd expands his revenge to include all humankind, not just the judge.

The plot is complex and involving, and the music is powerful and soaring, ranging from the haunting melody of the recurring "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" to the romantic "Johanna" to the witty song "A Little Priest," which is macabre but also cheerful and hilarious. The humor may be dark, but it is clearly there.

Stage Door, Inc. in Pasadena has found the sweetness in this Gothic tale, and presents Todd as a human being struggling with his passions, capable of restraint and kindness, though obsessed with his need for revenge. Todd is portrayed by Colton Wright, and he manages to make Todd appealing, and have us care about him, despite Todd's vicious behavior — a remarkable achievement. It is a brilliant, energetic, nuanced performance. Wright is matched by Heather Gabriel as Mrs. Lovett, who finds all the right notes, and they together form their own axis of evil and establish a relationship that is terrifyingly believable, and familiar.

Marc Anthony Glover, artistic director of Stage Door, directed, and he has created a mini-miracle of a set, a re-creation of an English mews, not fancy but charming, and he has added enough extra effects for several plays. The pace is breakneck, and the large cast (ten principals and ten in the ensemble) spills over often into the seating area, so that audience involvement comes close to audience participation. This intimate venue works beautifully for this musical drama, and Sondheim's intentions emerge with crystal clarity, reaching out to seize us by the throat and drag us into involvement. The ending is rich in emotional power, and the evening captures fully the genius of Sondheim and permits us to wonder whether director Glover himself is not touched with genius. I felt privileged to be in the audience.

The production from Generations Theatre, in association with Rice University, takes quite a different approach. An equally large cast and ensemble are used, but presented here as inmates of an asylum who stage the events of Todd's life. Director George Brock has them onstage as we enter the auditorium, moving ceaselessly with the energy of the mad, beseeching and imploring each other, a snake pit of humanity at its low ebb. And they remain so for the intermission as well — madness is relentless. The effect is theatrically powerful.

This device distances us somewhat from the events, since we are reminded that it is play-acting, not real. This may be an advantage, as the brutality of a slashed throat is nonetheless vivid. Kristin Warren plays Mrs. Lovett, unconventional casting since Warren is young — Angela Lansbury was in her mid-50s when she won her Tony for the role — but Warren is so excellent that it's easy to see why she got the role. She anchors the show with her beauty, charm, vitality and vivacity, lighting up the stage on each entrance. Kregg Dailey, whose performance last year as Andrew Jackson in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson was dynamic and superb, here plays Todd as depressed and dour rather than as maniacally obsessed, and the result is a glum persona and little or no chemistry with Mrs. Lovett.

The third production, which just ended its run, was at Houston Community College, Southwest. Andrea H. Jaber portrayed Mrs. Lovett, made her sympathetic and sang "By the Sea" as though it had been written for her. Sam Smith played Todd, and found the authority in his songs but not in the spoken dialogue.

Each of these productions has its own strengths, and in each, imaginative actors create compelling performances, too many to cite here. But in the Generations staging, I can't ignore Forrest Surles as the young sailor who loves Johanna. He captures not only the masculine need for her but also an angelic naiveté — he is tremendous, and can belt a song. The Generations Theatre orchestra is wonderful, the singing is exciting and exemplary, and the whole production is replete with class. Brock has brilliantly re-created Sondheim's dark vision of the human soul.

Stage Door, Inc. also delivers vocally, and adds surprising charm, empathy and dramatic depth from its leads. And the 14-year-old Joseph Concha plays the young Tobias, sings well and holds the stage with authority. Glover has found Sondheim's dark vision, but has also found and delivered Sondheim's love and admiration for the tattered human heart.

Houston is fortunate indeed to have both these productions. Why not see them both and judge for yourself?

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