Encore Michigan

Barn’s Sweeney Todd is a show worth obssessing over

Review July 05, 2019 Bridgette Redman

AUGUSTA, Mich.–Obsession is a dangerous thing. It often blots out everything but that which is obsessed upon and can even destroy all the good in what is being sought.

That, ultimately, is the story Stephen Sondheim tells in Sweeney Todd, and cannibalism and murder is just the vehicle he uses to get there.

And in the hands of the artists at Augusta Barn, the vehicle is manufactured with outstanding musical voices, creative makeup and costumes, intense acting, a sometimes overpowering orchestra, a flexible moving set and intelligent directing that resists the urge to surrender to cheap choices and instead brings out the heart of Sondheim’s masterpiece.

There are roles in musical theater that have achieved the status of iconic, two of those roles being Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett. They’ve been played by some of the greats of our time—Len Cariou, Angela Lansbury, Patti Lupone, Kelsey Grammar, Emma Thompson. So it makes sense that the Barn would assign those roles to two of its stars—the eternal Penelope Alex and their recent leading man Robert Newman of Guiding Light soap opera fame.

If Alex weren’t so consistently wonderful in role after role that she undertakes at the Barn, it would be tempting to call this a triumph or a lifetime achievement. Instead, it would be more accurate to say it was typical Alex—total commitment to a role, high energy and an ability to bring an unusual personality to life in an authentic manner.

Her Mrs. Lovett is gently scheming, not out of malice but out of a long life of denial and want and because she finally sees the chance to get what she has wanted for so long. Her descent into cannibalism is only because she really wants to see her pie shop succeed and finally have some of the better things in life such as nice clothes, a fancy parlor and eventually life by the sea.

Newman has put in some mixed performances at the Barn, but he reveals his true power as Sweeney Todd. His presence is frightening and commanding. Here is a man who was wronged and has returned to right all that he saw was wrong, never once caring whether what he is doing is also wrong. He showed his mastery over Sondheim’s tricky lyrics and displayed full confidence as Todd.

While these two dominate the story of Todd’s return to London to find his wife gone, his child in the hands of the judge who sent him away to get at his wife, and his grisly scheme of revenge such as only a barber and a pie-maker could carry out; there are others populating the large-scale musical that make it an interesting and compelling story.

Jonnie Carpathios gives Anthony Hope the innocence and enthusiasm that one can imagine Sweeney possessed in the days when he was a young barber, Benjamin Barker. Hope falls desperately in love with Cosette Smith’s Johanna, and moons about effectively.

Smith does a beautiful job as Johanna, providing subtle layers that show she may have inherited a touch of her mother’s madness and her father’s violence.

Melissa Cotton Hunter has earned her spot in the Barn troupe and shows it with her wild performance of the old beggar woman who is constantly on the outskirts, observing more than she should, tinging her madness with unheeded warnings.

Patrick Hunter’s Beadle Bamford struts his way through the stage stuffed with his self-righteousness, the sort of self-proclaimed good man who spreads the evil of others. His counter-part, Judge Turpin was played by John Jay Espino, who chose to make him a muttering, self-absorbed man who lacked the threat or danger typically inherent in the role.

The casting of Jimmy Damore as Toby was an interesting one. At first glance, he seemed too big and too old to be the “boy” everyone kept calling him. Yet, Damore infused him with an innocence and naivete that made it work.

The star who never appears on stage is Hans Friedrichs, the director. Sweeney Todd is a show that tempts many directors to get carried away with gore—blood and body parts. It’s tempting to get caught up in the show’s trappings and to lose sight of what makes it an enduring work of art, what lifts it above the horror genre and into a story steeped with meaning and relevancy.

Friedrichs resists all this and makes choices that moves the story forward, that raises the stakes and brings out all that is human and universal in the tale of Sweeney Todd. In a musical that still lasts nearly three hours, he streamlines it by cutting scenes that aren’t absolutely necessary to the story being told. He takes the audience on a fierce ride, challenging them to think about such issues as obsession, revenge, hypocrisy, and self-righteousness.

The technical crew supports him in this effort in ways that go beyond intimating violence without spurting blood. Michael Wilson Morgan’s costumes, Arianna Krenk’s wigs/hair and whoever did the makeup painted a picture of a London gone awry. It’s not the place of wonders that Anthony sings about, but the deep, dark pit that Sweeney has lived.

Lauren Gallup uses the lighting design to tell the story with ever contrasting shades that grow darker with the souls of the stage’s occupants. Steven Lee Burright takes on the challenge of a script that demands multiple layers and an ability to move bodies from one height to another with a rotating set piece that the ensemble is able to move easily about.

While Sweeney Todd is far from light summer fare, it is a show that the Barn tackles with creativity, intelligence and exuberance. Whether you are a fan of Sondheim or just enjoy great theater, it’s a show not to be missed.