Sweeney Todd arrives in Minneapolis with pie to share

By Tatiana Craine

Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd,
A touring show that deserves a nod.

With actors dazzling behind a gloomy facade,
They sing and dance and play instruments.

And with that, their story here I present.”Sweeney Todd” follows the story of Benjamin Barker, a former barber reduced to a convict’s life. While incarcerated, Barker’s wife and daughter were taken advantage of by Judge Turpin, a devious and lusty judge. Fifteen years later, Barker is released from prison and assumes the pseudonym Sweeney Todd upon his return to London. Todd then finds his old barber shop under the care of a baker named Mrs. Lovett; the two form an unlikely team, seeking revenge for the wrongs done to Todd’s wife and daughter.

While other productions present scores of chorus members lining up to get their throats slit to song and dance numbers, director John Doyle’s unconventional production of Broadway’s morbid classic, currently on stage in the Twin Cities at the State Theatre, showcases merely 10 actors throughout the entire play. Though the cast is sparse in numbers, there is definitely no shortage of talent that radiates off the dimly lit stage. Each actor boasts their triple-threat abilities, crucial to the Broadway stage – and they also supply the music for the entirety of the show. All instruments are absolutely essential and as the musical progresses, the soft hum of a clarinet can be heard blending into the deep thrum of a bass as a piano tinkers in the background. Cast members play up to three different instruments with the skills of a true orchestra.

Broadway veteran and Tony Award winner Judy Kaye gave the most outstanding performance of the evening, playing the part of Mrs. Lovett, Todd’s sinister baking sidekick. Her stage presence is truly a force to be reckoned with, immediately commanding the audience’s attention whether she is cracking a bawdy joke or dreaming of a new life outside London-town. Kaye switches between comedy and drama at the drop of a razor with the ease of a very seasoned actress. In addition to her performance as Mrs. Lovett, Kaye also plays three instruments including a rather humorous stint with a tuba.

The title role was artfully played by David Hess, creating a role with a dark luminosity that shone off the stage and into the minds of the audience. Todd’s quest for revenge, though grisly and horrific, was easily justified by Hess’s passionate performance as the demonic barber. His character, hell-bent on avenging his wife, seems to be stuck in a world dominated by vengeance and a lust for blood. At times this dedication to retribution for wrongs committed long ago is wearying, but his unwavering devotion is well-played.

Played by Edmund Bagnell, Mrs. Lovett’s assistant, Tobias, is the epitome of the crazed heart of the tale of “Sweeney Todd.” He yearns for love and attention yet succumbs to a frenzied and insane burst of emotions. Bagnell seems to want to burst forth from his bodily restrictions, his anxiety and restlessness apparent at all times. He plays the fiddle with the fierce agitation of a truly crazed London street urchin. Attention must be paid to this young actor who does not disappoint with acting, singing and fiddling.

“Sweeney Todd” productions are usually a spectacular feast for the eyes with grandiose sets; however this performance goes for a more subtle approach. With no elaborate chairs and trap-doors, set changes consist of an ebony pine coffin with chairs artfully strewn about the stage. The backdrop brings to mind the inside of a coffin, all bleak slats of wood adorned with a sundry assortment of trinkets. Yet despite this austere approach to set dressing, it works. The play’s desolate and grim atmosphere is made much more evident by the lack of sumptuous sets teeming with unnecessary baubles.

Unlike the recent film adaptation of the musical, this version of “Sweeney Todd” is an alternative to the norm, yet it is exceptional as any previous production. None of the performances are forced, they feel natural and effortless. The circumstances at hand are beyond belief, but the presentation of the subject matter makes the characters’ ghastly reasoning and actions more than credible. Extreme gore and blood, a seeming staple of other “Sweeney Todd” productions, are nonexistent in Doyle’s version, but his alternative approach to the musical works incredibly well. It seems that anything more than the desolate and minimalist method of performing “Sweeney Todd” is excessive.

This touring version of “Sweeney Todd” is a vision unhindered and unobstructed by superfluous sets or costumes, true to the macabre heart of the musical. The only thing that truly matters is revenge, and audiences will get a taste of this bloody business. Rarely can I honestly say this, but I wholeheartedly feel the 10 artists of the cast are worthy of a perfect 10 for their performances.