By Manning Harris
Terrifying, exhilarating, thrilling, musically glorious, lyrically dazzling—Actor’s Express has it all in what many consider Stephen Sondheim’s masterwork “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” directed by Freddie Ashley, running through February 28. It sets the gold standard for 2016, right here and now.
I was fortunate enough to see the original Broadway cast in 1979 with Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury in the leading roles, and I will tell you upfront that the Express version impressed me more (and I have preached in the past that I hate comparisons). I enjoyed the show back in the day, but to paraphrase Sweeney: “I was young, life had been kind to me, I learned.” It just seemed too farfetched that a murderous Sweeney would start disposing of his customers.
We must backtrack. In 1846 a young sailor named Anthony (Benjamin Davis) befriends one Sweeney Todd (Kevin Harry), a barber whom a corrupt Judge Turpin (Michael Strauss) had banished years ago so that Turpin, aided by his accomplice Beadle (Glenn Rainey), could pursue Todd’s wife. When Sweeney arrives in London, he finds a meet pie shop run by a Mrs. Lovett (Deborah Bowman), who relates to him the sad and tawdry tale of what happened to his wife, and how her now grown daughter Johanna (Kelly Chapin Martin) is a ward of the judge.
Incidentally, Anthony happens to notice the lovely Johanna singing in her window and is immediately smitten. A faux Italian barber named Pirelli (Stuart Schleuse) and his young assistant Tobias (Joseph Masson) appear on the scene.
Meanwhile, Sweeney sets up shop and swears revenge. He finds his “friends,” a collection of sterling silver straight razors, which Mrs. Lovett has kept since their owner, Benjamin Barker, was banished from England. That’s about all I can tell you; mustn’t be a spoiler.
There is a film version of “Sweeney Todd,” directed by Tim Burton, in 2007 starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter; they are not trained singers, but they’re fine actors. You may judge the results for yourself, if you wish. Interestingly, both Burton and Depp both saw Todd as dead inside, with only his lust for revenge keeping him alive. I find him the saddest and darkest figure in all musical theatre. Director Ashley says the show “will always grab at the dark, primal corners of our psyches.”
In spite of all that, “Sweeney Todd” is a thrill ride! The Broadway show won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Actor’s Express’ production grabs you from the first moment with a visceral impact and doesn’t let go. The ensemble singing is gutsy and powerful and every performer is a singing actor with real intensity. Kudos to music director Alli Lingenfelter and Bubba Carr, choreographer. “Even the orchestra is beautiful!” (From “Cabaret,” remember?)
And what a cast—Kevin Harry’s fine singing voice and compelling presence make him a superb Sweeney. Deborah Bowman’s performance as Mrs. Lovett is hypnotic and unforgettable: her manic delight in both mayhem and romance and her sheer animal joy of being alive are indescribable. They must be seen. Her singing and acting are cut from one rare thread.
Kelly Chapin Martin’s beautiful soprano is perfect for Johanna; she and the dashing Benjamin Davis are a perfect romantic couple under extreme duress. The following actors are lovely and pitch perfect, as they say: Michael Strauss as Turpin; Glenn Rainey as Beadle; Jessica De Maria as the Beggar Woman, young Joseph Masson as Tobias (what a future he has!), Stuart Schleuse as Parelli, and Daniel Burns as Fogg. Also superb are Jennifer Alice Acker, Eric Graise, Tinizia Bentley, Skyler Passmore, Kelly Monahan, and Kaitlyn Ortega.
I’m trying to find something to carp at; I can’t. I did observe that much of the entire evening is played pretty much near the top of everyone’s emotional range; much of this is organic to the text; but I do think a bit more modulation here and there might be in order. For example, the charming “Not While I’m Around,” sung by Mrs. Lovett and Tobias, and also “Pretty Women,” sung by Sweeney and Turpin, come as very welcome sweet respites from all the fire and intensity of the show.
The original director Hal Prince believed “Sweeney” was in large part an allegory of capitalism and its selfish qualities—and well as revenge and the class struggle. Feel free to discuss this and other topics with your friends after the show. By the way, the book is by Hugh Wheeler.
But see “Sweeney Todd.” The Express is becoming the state of the art of theatre in Atlanta, if it isn’t already.
For tickets and information, visit actors-express.com.