Fort Worth — Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler, is one of the most difficult scores in musical theatre. It needs a creative and innovative director who knows how to implement his vision, as Joel Ferrell has for the production now onstage at the Circle Theatre in Fort Worth. The show needs an ensemble of actors who can handle the vocals, which are more structurally classical — as is true for most of Sondheim’s work. For this production, the actors also play musical instruments.
But attention must be paid to the oft-overlooked person who, in the case of small productions, has to play that score on piano. Speaking as one who has been musical director and piano conductor for a production of this show, I can tell you this score is not an easy one to play, especially when one is working with a reduced ensemble (meaning fewer musicians than the original score calls for). The original production was scored for full orchestra with orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. Bravo to Aimee Hurst Bozarth for clean, precise, and flexible work as the musical associate/pianist, supporting musical director Ian Ferguson.
Rumors had it that this was a true story. In actuality, there is no record of a Sweeney Todd but there were other stories which, when considered together, are more than enough influence for Christopher Bond’s play, Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The strongest inspiration seems to have been the true story of a barber in Paris who sliced the throats of his customers. George Dibdin-Pitt introduced the character Sweeney Todd in one of his 19th century penny-dreadfuls. Bond’s play was produced in London in 1973, where Sondheim saw it, became interested, and six years later Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street opened on Broadway. It won the Tony Award in every category except best lighting design for a total of eight in all, and 11 Drama Desk Awards.
In this telling of the story, Anthony Hope (Ian Ferguson) rescued Sweeney Todd (Max Hartman) while at sea. Todd (a.k.a. Benjamin Barker) had a beautiful wife who was coveted by the amoral Judge Turpin (Randy Pearlman). Turpin, assisted by his servant Beadle (Alex Heika), coveted Barker’s wife so obsessively that he implicated and wrongly imprisoned Todd for life. Soon after their arrival in London, Todd is propositioned by a beggar woman (Mary Gilbreath Grim) whom he shoos away. He arrives on Fleet Street and meets Mrs. Lovett (Sarah Gay), a poor, struggling widow who makes and sells meat pies that consist of whatever ingredients she can scrounge. A young orphan, Tobias “Toby” Ragg (Alejandro Saucedo), assists her in the shop.
Todd negotiates with Mrs. Lovett to open a barbershop in her upstairs space, which is actually his old barbershop. Upon learning his wife has died and his infant daughter Johanna (Carly Wheeler) has become Judge Turpin’s ward, Todd plots revenge. He enters and wins a shaving competition, defeating charlatan Adolfo Pirelli (also played by Mary Gilbreath Grim). This establishes his notoriety which helps in building a customer base for his shop, the setting where he will exact his revenge.
Bob Lavallee’s set is abstract, sitting on Circle’s three-fourths thrust with minimal set pieces and consisting of wheeled flats which move around to create levels and to define spaces. The story highlights the industrial revolution and its unintended negative impact on urban centers, in this case, London. Aesthetically, Todd’s choice of a single, tangerine, scalloped back chair brings beauty into the killing space. In horror stories, the lighting (Amanda West), costumes (Melissa Panzarello) and in this case, sound design and props (Matthew Gray), are responsible for working together with the music to establish the horror. Those effects are achieved with the exception of Todd’s barber tools — which look like butter knives, not the tools of a professional barber.
Todd is often played as dour and maniacal, but Hartman plays Todd as resolute but occasionally melancholic, which suggests a conflicted and more interesting individual.
The role of Mrs. Lovett is really hard to get right but Sarah Gay succeeds. The role has the most difficult songs because of the lyrics, intervals, required accent and the constant manipulation of props. Mrs. Lovett is almost always pounding something, or kneading dough, or swatting insects, or dragging carcasses around the stage — all while singing.
Everything the beggar woman has to be in exaggerated character with guttural sounds and expressions mixed with soaring legitimate vocal passages. Mary Gilbreath-Grim, who can sing anything it seems, moves nimbly back and forth between characters and vocalizations.
It is such a relief to see that Judge Turpin’s solo “Johanna-Act II Sequence” has not been cut from this production as sometimes happens; this number is important to the storyline and Randy Pearlman is shudderingly depraved as Turpin. Ferguson and Wheeler are compatible as the ill-fated young loves, Anthony and Johanna.
In Ferrell’s vision, Toby is the anchoring character because he is innocent and therefore the most intuitive character and the one who survives the chaos. Saucedo does not play Toby as simple-minded, rather as linear and kind. “Not While I’m Around” is an earnest plea with his substitute mother, Mrs. Lovett, to be careful because she is in danger.
Other notable numbers: the “Johanna Quartet” (Todd, Turpin, Lovett, Beggar Woman), “Kiss Me” (Anthony and Johanna), “By the Sea” (Lovett), and “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” (Beadle).
Music is as essential to establishing horror in musical theatre as the soundtrack was for the film Psycho. To bolster otherwise thin instrumentation, actors’ bodies become percussive instruments on the hardwood flats. When those are combined with drums and brass, the texture thickens as does the mood within the story.
In the tradition of this musical and its creators, the Circle Theatre production has elements that are unexpected, and that is always enjoyable when it works. Ferrell’s dive into the human displacement and suffering caused by societal chaos and violence is complete. We are reminded of our responsibility to the children lest they become the new Sweeneys, “filled with anguish and indifference.”