|Jason Shealy as Sweeney Todd, Eden Casteel as Mrs. Lovett, Terry Shea as The Judge. Photo by Seth Jacobson Photography.
Ezra Pound once said that artists are the “antennae” of the human race, and when Stephen Sondheim was writing what some consider his finest musical, “Sweeney Todd,” back in the late 1970s, he was clearly picking up the grim meathook realities of the impending Reagan years, where unrestrained capitalism first found purchase in our national psyche.
The Broadway production, in 1979, literally opened with a huge illustration of the rigidly hierarchical “beehive of British society” on the curtain; unsuspecting theatergoers were treated to a macabre tale of revenge and class struggle fought with razors and rolling pins.
The show has a message that’s timely now, in an America where the top 1% own 40% of the nation’s wealth. And the Contemporary Theater Company in Wakefield pulls no punches, offering an energetic, unblinking version of “Sweeney Todd” that’s full of powerful voices, fine acting, sly comedy, and moments of inspired stagecraft.
The plot is probably familiar to many. Sweeney Todd (played by Jason Shealy with grim determination) is a London barber who has made his way back home 15 years after being transported to Australia by a judge who coveted his wife. Rescued by the sailor Anthony (wonderfully voiced by Alex Bermudez), he finds his wife has taken poison, and his daughter Johanna (Maggie Papa) is a ward of the evil Judge Turpin (the delightfully sleazy Terry Shea). Anthony and Todd arrive in London only to be immediately accosted by a beggar woman (an evocative, heartbreaking turn by Alison King Anthony). All Sweeney has going for him is his disguise (no one recognizes him as the deported Benjamin Barker), an empty barber shop, and his razors, which have been hidden by the owner of the pie shop below, Mrs. Lovett (Eden Casteel).
What happens then — as the opening number says — well, that's the play, and while it sounds like dark business indeed, there are leavening notes of humor, as Todd competes with a street barber (Robert Grady), worms his way into the graces of the judge’s beadle (J. Rick Casey), and discovers, with Mrs. Lovett, the powerful vertical integration possible between a barber shop and a meat pie bakery.
Yes, this is a show about cutting people’s throats and grinding them up into pasties. But it’s a delightful musical.
Shealy and Casteel are outstanding as Todd and Lovett. Shealy’s taciturn demeanor is the perfect foil for Casteel’s expressive, passionate turn as Mrs. Lovett. Their simmering relationship is played more openly than the Broadway production, full of clever bits of business. Their voices are uniformly excellent. This is a challenging score — most of the show’s two-plus hours is sung — and both Shealy and Casteel deliver with power, range, and expressive vocals. Their duets, particularly “A Little Priest,” are an absolute delight.
Musical director Jean Maxon-Carpenter has done an excellent job coaxing strong performances from the entire cast, and the five-member pit band does a solid job bringing the complex arrangements to life. This is a score where the accompaniment offers very little for the actors to cling to — or even clues for where to come in — but she has succeeded in making it all work.
Director Christopher Simpson has captured the essence of the show: Sweeney Todd is both a dark tragedy and a moral fable, and this staging, which brings the actors into — and through — the audience, implicates us all in a way no proscenium can. He’s also ensured that the energy of the show — which is as insistent and merciless as a Victorian clockwork steam whistle — never flags. The pacing is brisk but never hurried, and he has wrung every inch out of the Contemporary’s performance space.
One highlight, for fans of the show, is the staging Simpson created for Fogg’s Asylum. Originally done on Broadway with shadows on canvas, he brings the inmates out into full view, and ties in their oppression thematically in a very satisfying way. It’s a deft moment.
As someone who saw the original several times on Broadway — including once from the front row, close enough to see the tears in Len Cariou’s eyes in the final bakehouse scene — I have a high bar for productions of this show. Much as I admire Johnny Depp, the film version does not — and cannot — do this show justice because of the importance of the chorus and frame narrative. That said, I can recommend this production without reservation. If you remember the Broadway version, you will find much familiar and some fine new touches; if this is your first experience of one of the greatest works of American musical theater, well, you are in for one grisly, exhilarating, absorbing evening.
Tickets available at Contemporary Theater Company, 327 Main Street, Wakefield, RI, (401) 218-0282. Evening shows at 7pm on Oct 17, 24, 30, 31, Nov 5, 6, 7, 12, 13, 14 with Sunday matinees at 2pm on Nov 1 and 8.