Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
Horror on a Neat, Small Scale: “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” in Claremont
“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is considered by many to be Stephen Sondheim’s most sophisticated work, especially from a musical standpoint. It also broke new territory in several other directions. Based on a 1973 play, it celebrated, in weird but ultimately human ways, the story of an evil barber told and retold by Londoners for over 200 years. It was a matter of answering several logical questions earlier melodramatic versions had not: Why would a potentially good person become a soulless serial killer? Why would anyone else help him in this? What turned righteous revenge turn into a pathology of murder? Ultimately, for those who created the thing, the question was whether this grim, bloody and horror-filled musical could attract an audience somewhat desensitized by Hollywood horror flicks?
The answer was a resounding yes. In the new production now at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, the gore is a bit muted, and the sense of monolithic industrial architecture dwarfing the individual is only moderately accessible, but the central performers still create a sense of evil which can engross an audience. Indeed, putting such a large and powerful musical on such a comparatively small stage, as director Chuck Ketter manages to do, is in itself quite a feat.
The ever-so-versatile John LaLonde is Sweeney, moving from bitter to hate-filled to psychopathic in stages of voice and body language, all done a lot closer to the observant audience than most productions. Debbie Prutsman creates an appropriately, oddly charming, amoral Mrs. Lovett, far too delighted to be doing good business to have any qualms about the source of supply for her meat pie filling. The songs LaLonde and Prutsman share, and the way they work together, provide delightful comic punctuation to this grotesque story.
This is assisted by a large and able ensemble cast. Standouts include Caleb Shaw’s Anthony, the upbeat and yearning young sailor, Jenny Moon Shaw’s crazed beggar woman with a story to tell, and Adam Trent’s earnestly dim Tobias, Lovett’s willing assistant – at least for a while. Sam Nisbett proves coldly menacing, and Robert Hoyt officiously insufferable as the judge and beadle against whom Sweeney’s most intense hatred is rightly focused. Katie Roche sings beautifully as Anthony’s love interest, Joanna.
A very well-voiced chorus of ten fills out the scene and offers some of the most potent music, Lance Smith and Vil Towers add to the tale with brief appearances as a snake-oil salesman and the operator of a madhouse, respectively. Janet Renslow’s choreography (that tricky process of making a large group move as one without seeming to be dancing) helps create a sense of crowd, and John Patrick’s set does what it can to enlarge the usually small Candlelight stage by taking it out into the audience area, which helps with this theater’s inability to go tall.
The first time I saw Sweeney Todd, at its first L.A. appearance in 1980, I was very glad my then-editor had insisted on writing the review. As I said to my companion, “How do I tell the audience I write for that this is one of the most remarkable pieces of popular theater I’ve ever seen, but given the content none of those who usually read my stuff would want to see it?” Stunning, bloody, cruel and elementally musical, its complex score could not help but ring in one’s head. Its images could overwhelm.
If you had told me then that the next live performance I would see would be at a dinner theater, I’d have laughed. Indeed, when we went to eat after that original version, our first words to our server were, “Do you have anything that doesn’t bleed?” Of course Candlelight Pavilion’s general manager, Michael Bollinger, claims to have that pegged: “It works because feed my audience before, not after, they see the show.” Also, the blood flows much more subtly here than it did then, so the gross-out level is somewhat reduced.
And, in truth, I’m glad that Candlelight has taken the risk. Though their “Sweeney Todd” is perhaps a bit less messy or grand than its earlier counterpart, its intensity and the quality of the performances keep it vital and fascinating. And the culinary end of the company is having fun with the food – turning their usual beef dish into a meat pie, for example, and putting crafted fruit “eyeballs” in their cocktails. Still, this would all just be kind of ridiculous if the show wasn’t worth watching. It is.
What: “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” When: Through October 13, doors opening for dinner at 6 p.m. Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and for brunch 11 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd in Claremont How Much: $53-$68, $25 for children 12 and under, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com