I have sailed the world, beheld it’s wonders, from the regions of the west to the regions of the east— and there’s no place like Milburn Stone Theatre. Devilishly embodying the holiday spirit of darkness, and continuing on their unyielding path to produce a season of Sondheim, under the skillful and edgy Direction of Artistic Director S. Lee Lewis, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street takes to the stage for a limited two-weekend engagement. Lee promises to enthrall audiences with his striking new conceptualization of the iconic musical, and with the Musical Direction of Dan McTiernan, this titular tale serves a vengeful and theatrical God that bares the essence of the story’s core right to the bones.
God, that’s good— the set, the lights, the costumes, the overall aesthetic behind the production— simple put it’s everything one could hope for in a production of Sweeney Todd. With only “The MST Build Crew” credited for Scenic Design, it’s no wonder that such a fantastical set has emerged onto the stage for this performance. Two-story rotating set pieces show the Londontown street exterior and are easily spun to reveal the interiors of the pie shop, bake-house, Judge Turpin’s house, Fogg’s Asylum, and more. The central piece of the scenic work is the tonsorial parlor overtop the pie shop and its placement and structure alone are breathtaking in addition to being the perfect centering factor among the Broadway-esque styling of the set’s other pieces.
Lighting Designer William A. Price III illuminates the artistic vision of Lee’s work resplendently. Lee’s approach involves rich color saturation in the costume department, a feat well-accomplished by Costumer Lindsay Ellis. Garish and ghoulish green overtones catch a great deal of these colors throughout the performance, marking Price’s aptitude for highlighting color schemes. In addition to these haunting lights, his focal spots— such as the one used to highlight Anthony’s anguish during one of the endless “Johanna” reprises— are sharp and cut striking shadows of the characters when they are in use. Price furthers the aesthetic experience of the production by playing with shadow and silhouette, most often seen during “Johanna: Quartet” with Lovett in the underpinnings of the barbershop. His subdued blues for the sewer and red bursts for the victims unite the atmospheric verve of the piece in a visually striking fashion.
Ellis, jettisoned from Lee’s vision of objectively sexualizing the motives of the characters, fits a new couture to the primary characters of the show. Both the Beatle and Mrs. Lovett are taken from their respectively revolting and frumpy fashions and thrust into alluring and provocatively appealing attire. Ellis suits Lovett in particular with sinful and sultry corsets and stockings to broaden her appeal as a maniacally obsessed femme fatale and takes a similar approach to the sharp and biting style of the Beatle which augments the despicable villainy of the character tenfold. Ellis’ work with the ensemble costumes is a unique approach to the overall framework that Lee has cast upon the show and it creates individual personalities among the unnamed characters.
Musical Director Dan McTiernan puts a sturdy handle on the production with his intrinsic understanding of Sondheim’s complexities as they come throughout the performance. Building swells of crescendo at precisely the right moment to deliver the maximum punch of emotional intensity becomes a specialty that McTiernan delivers consistently throughout the show. Harmonies blend sublimely under his keen ear and the recitatives are enunciated and articulated masterfully with his sharp guidance. Leading the off-stage piano and small contingency of players in the orchestra, McTiernan delivers a fully satisfying sound that does a solid justice to the workings of Stephen Sondheim.
Recognized for his non-traditional approaches to iconic musicals, Director S. Lee Lewis breaks the mold with his visionary approach to this production. With an unforgiving fervor he delves into the sexuality of the play, which unearths a great deal of ulterior motivations for the characters, portraying them in thrilling new lights. Hand-selecting a sensational cast to bring his dream to fruition, Lewis projects notions of sympathetic vengeance onto the title character while turning the rest of Sondheim’s carefully crafted universe on its ear but in a way that is shocking and intriguing to discover. In addition to these notions, the symbolic representation of certain core elements of the production is illustrated with striking beauty in several of Lee’s technical staging choices.
Lee discovers innovative ways to drive character interaction and grounds the show’s emotions with his unique approach to blocking and staging. This approach is most directly achieved at the top of the initial “Johanna” number where the ingénue characters share a physical encounter upon the street, allowing the vicious Judge to separate them, fueling the angst that Anthony floods into the song. Creating striking images throughout the performance— watch the barber scene closely during “Pretty Women” for another daring and delectable example of this work— Lee delivers a refreshing take on this musical.
A sturdy ensemble powerful encapsulates the tone of the musical right from the opening of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.” The terrifying aesthetic that this ensemble brings to the table in the performance is that of a brutal madness that seeps off of them and oozes out into the audience. Their voices curl to match the thematic evils and motivations of the show and numbers, delivering each of the segmented asides that the ensemble is so well known for in this piece with rigorous intent.
Seizing the stage with thunderous gusto, Rob Tucker takes the role of Adolpho Pirelli to the epitome of melodramatized enjoyment. With a bold and daring blast of sound he launches into “The Contest” and delivers a stunning rendition of the number, complete with operatic belts that quake the soul. His personality is as large as his sound is glorious and the hyper-animated facial expressions only serve to further his exceptional moments in the limelight. Masterfully crafting first his Italian and then Irish affected accents, Tucker showcases the epitome of a functioning aural stereotype in the role and is truly worthy of such great praises.
Showcasing the duality of a richly layered character Erin Smith adapts the Beggar Woman into something brassy and grotesque. Her dulcet voice serves her moments in numbers like “No Place Like London” well as the trembling sound of her begging for alms is hardly ignorable. Pairing this desperate innocence against her putrid sexuality as she tries to entice the men of the streets to earn a few quid reveals Smith’s ability to create depth in a minor role. “City on Fire (Reprise)” gives Smith the chance to showcase her range and a delicate side of the character that has been so purposefully hidden by Sondheim’s writing.
A truly disturbing portrayal of young Tobias reverberates through Zack Lockwood’s performance of the character. Eager and sprightly in his rendition of “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir”, Lockwood possesses a youthful exuberance that attests to the character’s crafted age of innocence. With a robust sound that almost outstretches the bounds of the character, Lockwood pours heart and soul into “Not While I’m Around,” and maintains a convincing accent throughout the performance. Settling into a ghastly shell of traumatic shock by the show’s conclusion, Lockwood’s final scene is deliciously disturbing.
Traditionally the role of master villain in this show falls to that of the salacious Judge Turpin (Steve Quintilain) and although Lee’s direction takes a different approach to the character, Quintilain is no less revolting in the role than is to be expected. Mastering the look through his piercingly intense and unsettling gaze as well as his deliberately creepy gait and stance, Quintilain delivers all of the lechery that is ascribed to the Judge’s character. His voice acquires an unctuous quality, especially during “Mea Culpa”, and blends with lurid fervor against Sweeney’s sound in “Pretty Women.”
An inferno of ruthless villainy is present in Kelly Buterbaugh’s interpretation of Beatle Bamford. Stimulated by her licentious sexuality, Buterbaugh brings new depth to the levels of manipulative evil infused into the story. Delivering “Ladies in Their Sensitivities” and “Parlor Songs” an octave above where they are naturally placed actually creates a sinister quality for both numbers that makes her character that much more disturbing. Buterbaugh is fierce in the way she stalks about the stage, but tempers this ferocity with sassiness and cheek to keep the dynamic attributes of the distasteful character alive and blazing.
Amid all the darkness and vengeance that glows in a shadowy rage of the show there must be hope and light if for nothing else to strike a balance with the forces of the universe. Falling into the forms of Anthony (Brendan Sheehan) and Johanna (Christy Wyatt) such a delicate radiance is found. Wyatt provides a serene and simple syrupy sound for “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” as well as a delightful top harmony to duets like “Ah, Miss” and “Kiss Me,” the latter of which exceptionally demonstrating the humor of Sondheim’s lyrics in her facial expressions. Sheehan is a knockout as the emotionally charged young lover, all but swooning to the audience’s ovaries with each and every rendition of “Johanna.” Charged with lustrous spirit when he enters the initial scene and throughout the performance, Sheehan’s voice is alluring to a fault, garnering a great deal of interest in the success of his character’s story.
Discovering a uniquely eccentric approach to Mrs. Lovett, Lauren Spencer-Harris is the epitome of madness incarnate. Delivering lunacy like you’ve never seen and heard before, Spencer-Harris looks every bit delirious sociopath Lee has depicted her to be. Her sharp features and frightening smile deliver a spine-shuddering reality into the lunacy that drifts about in the character’s mind. With unforgettable quirks to her textual delivery and a truly interesting lyrical delivery of numbers like “By the Sea” and “God, That’s Good!” Spencer-Harris’ adaptation of Lovett will astound you in ways you simply cannot imagine.
A title character has never been more thoroughly owned than the way Ryan DeVoe is currently possessing the role of Sweeney Todd. With a remarkable sound that melts through the performance as if the character’s songs were conceived with his voice in mind, DeVoe delivers a phenomenal performance from the moment he is revealed through to the shocking conclusion of the musical. Painstakingly building each emotional crescendo, the journey of Sweeney’s vengeance as it morphs into blood-lust and madness is eloquated to perfection with DeVoe’s mesmerizing approach. “Epiphany” bursts with demonic rage that has been swelling up to that point, layered from each musical encounter that Sweeney shifts through up to that number. “My Friends” as well as “Final Scene” are delivered with soul-searing emotion that shudders the heart to hear it. DeVoe is stellar in the title role; his portrayal capturing the ethereal essence of Sondheim’s brilliance.
Not to be missed, the show of the season for Milburn Stone Theatre, Sweeney Todd delivers with fierce intent and does not shy away from the glorious production that it is.
Running Time: Approximately 3 hours with one intermission
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street plays through October 25, 2015 at The Milburn Stone Theatre— 1 Seahawk Drive in North East, MD. For tickets call the box office at 410-287-1037 or purchase them online.
To read the interview with Director Lee Lewis, click here.