A BLOODY, SPECTACULAR, SPECTACLE SWEENEY TODD IS A FASCINATING PORTRAIT OF A MAN DRIVEN TO MADNESS, AND THE RESULTS ARE BLOODY WONDERFUL
The meat pies are hot and smelling yummy at the San Jose Stage’s new look of Stephen Sondheim's dark musical SWEENEY TODD, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Celebrating their 35th season, The San Jose Stage Company has crafted a powerful new vision of the Fleet Street bloodbath now on stage through March 18th. Widely acknowledged as Sondheim’s musical masterpiece, SWEENEY TODD is set amongst London’s seedy side streets and laced with Sondheim’s characteristically brilliant wit and dark humor. Artistic director of SJSC, Randall King, says “The very first line of this show makes me think of the true purpose of the theatre, telling the tale. San Jose Stage has in thirty-five seasons united our community through channeling our tales in the inherent intimacy of the stage.”
Directed by the clever Kenneth Kellerher, who brings a no bones re-envisioned stream lined cast of ten actors to play the main cast of this story of revenge. The intimate San Jose Stage brings these talented actors right to your seat. I am going to keep this adventure on to Fleet Street simple, I know that most of my readers have seen this story in the past. But Kellerher’s fresh look at Mr Todd is the best yet. Overall I was frightened of the extraordinary Noel Anthony’s tour de force performance of the mad man, Sweeney Todd. Kellerher and set designer Michael Palumbo bring a “Hannibal Lecter” feel to the space at the SJSC, wheeling in the monster on an old meat cart covered in a bloody tarp. Anthony opens the story in a mad rage as he vibrantly sings “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” backed up by a pitch perfect company.
This icon musical brings the barber, Sweeney Todd’s, savage quest for justice and retribution after years of false imprisonment. Assisted by savvy pie shop owner Mrs. Lovett, who is secretly in love with him, he sets out to avenge the wrongs done to him and his family. The marvelous Allison F Rich is the flour covered, Lady Macbeth to homicidal barber, Sweeney Todd. She creates her tasty spectacular meat pies, served with a side of fingernail. Rich who has been turning in memorable performances on the San Jose Stage for a few seasons is at her best. Lovett might just be her finest creation, an irresistible cyclone of toxic, sexual energy. You half expect to see tiny bones flying from her spider’s nest of hairpins. It would not have been little more than a stunning crust without performers able to rise to Sondheim’s music and the story’s emotion highlighted by the iconic song “A Little Priest.”
The cast, all of them splendid singers, vary in their abilities to inhabit their characters, but the featured actors, Bay Area’s best talents, lead this company. Anthony’s eyes are glowing, his shoulders bent forward and the weight of the world on his mind. His voice is filled with passion, hurt and anger; it pours everything into an intense madness that will rock you out of your seat. Ric Iverson steals his brief role as the barber con man, Adalfo Pirelli, as he sings “The Contest” with Sweeney. Iverson in the brief comic role of Pirelli, a rival, brings a charming evil to the stage. The commanding Christopher Vette is leering as real villain, Judge Turpin; he soars in a reprise solo of “Johanna”. His goon and head constable Beadle Bamford, played by the magnetic Branden Noel Thomas is marvelous in his solo “The Ladies in Their Sensitivities.” Thomas brings a caped swagger to Beadle that makes him a charming cop.
Johanna, the ingenue of the story, is played by superb soprano Monique Hafen with her wild eyed, frantic quality that telegraphs pure dread and love. Nothing in this scarred corner of London is clean or safe or innocent for long. The wonderful tenor, Sam Faustine, plays the lost sailor Anthony Hope who shows off his incredible voice in the show stopping number “Johanna.” Faustine provides one of the most compelling voices of the evening. Hafen’s performance of “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” is sterling and shows off her terrific voice and her distant love for Hope.
"Not While I'm Around" is a soaring memorable ballad that Lovett sings with Tobias, her unsteady young helper portrayed by local favorite Keith Pinto. Rich is vocally keen, and Pinto is unleashed as Toby winning the hearts of the sold out opening night audience. Jill Miller plays the mystery Beggar women who is caged throughout most of the two hour musical, her song “Ah Miss” with Faustine and Hafen is impressive. When Johanna is sentenced to an asylum we meet Jonas Fogg played by the eye catching Reg Huston, who is scarier than Anthony’s madness as Sweeney. Anthony plays the barber like a bear waiting to feed. His imposing stature and razor sharp brows captured the physicality of a man who survived and escaped a prison colony. His voice reverberates the SJSC stage and as his killings begin Steve Schoenbeck’s sound design roars with death as each victim passes to the pie factory. Complemented by the striking red tones of lights from Palumbo’s effective lighting design. As Sweeny points his razor to the audience as if threatening the crowd with his blade while singing “they all deserve to die”, Palumbo’s lighting is on cue to show the power of his left handed blade.
Director Kelleher and set and lighting designer, Palumbo, have recrafted this familiar work in new ways while at the same time finding its deep darkness as buckets of dark blood gush as each neck is slashed. Wicked tools hang from its beams like the barn in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” This production has both a winking of, “Silence of the Lambs” feel and the dark tinge of true madness. The beautiful dark Victorian costumes designed by Abra Berman have a stark gothic-noir feel -- an explosion of belts and buckles, fishnets and corsets. Her design is a lot steampunk, a little S&M, with a dollop of Third Reich thrown in. She kept Mrs. Lovett in red and the main cast in dark earth tones and aprons messed with blood stains. Props by Joanna Hobbs included many set piece items that the cast holds, windows and doorways, buckets of blood, tools, carts full or human meat, and the classic canes for both the Judge and Beadle and Sweeney’s bladed shiv as he waves them during his death ballet. Stage manager Cirby Hatano has the intense job of keeping this death romp moving with a smaller cast but a busy set. On stage is the full throttle of music director Katie Coleman and her four piece band. Some of the instruments the cast plays including the hanging organ bells. The small on stage orchestra is compelling and a highlight of this production.
The power of this "Sweeney Todd" is the power with which the whole drives home the point: “We can't kill the bankers, because the bankers are us.” A beautiful waltz celebrating cannibalism, a love song from a barber to his razors, a charged opening number both praising London and damning it. The San Jose Stage Company has offered a production with clarity and power with quick pacing. No fluff just point on chilling drama, music hall-style numbers and hauntingly beautiful romantic songs, and the results are bloody spectacular. Congrats to SJSC who is honored this theatre season with the BATCC 2018 The Paine Knickerbocker Continuing Contribution Award is named for the former theatre critic of The San Francisco Chronicle and is presented to an organization that has made a continuing contribution to Bay Area theatre. Next up at the THE STAGE is the World Premiere of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE that opens April 11th. In the meantime line up for a haircut and shave on Fleet Street, it's the best of the season.
THE SAN JOSE STAGE COMPANY Presents
The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Musical Book by Hugh Wheeler Music
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim Based on an adaptation by Christopher Bond
Directed by Kenneth Kelleher
Music Director Katie Coleman
Scenic and Lights by Michael Palumbo
Must close March 18, 2018
SAN JOSE STAGE
490 S 1st St, San Jose, CA 95113
Two hours 15 min with an intermission
For tickets ($30-$65) contact San Jose Stage Company
box office at 408-283-7142, or www.thestage.org
Photos by Dave Lepori
Tony Winner for Best Musical Drama Desk Winner for Outstanding Musical.
Noel Escobar*, Sam Faustine, Monique Hafen*, Reg Huston, Ric Iverson*, Jill Miller, Keith Pinto*, Allison F. Rich*, Branden Noel Thomas, Christopher Vettel*
The Meat Pies served to audience members Opening night