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Laughs and shivers collide in the dark comedic thrill ride that is “Sweeney Todd”

The stage of the Broadway show, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” during intermission on Friday, Feb. 2. The latest revival of Stephen Sondheim’s macabre musical will extend its Broadway run into spring of 2024. JENNA ZAZA/ THE STATESMAN

As the dimly-lit stage comes to life with the haunting melodies of brass instruments and synthesizers, an eerie fog curls around the set of 19th-century London, casting a mesmerizing spell over the audience. “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” transports theatergoers to a world where the line between morality and madness blurs into a macabre dance. 

This revival of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s classic musical at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre is directed by Thomas Kail, turning throat-slitting and revenge into an art form and managing to make murder terrifying, strangely lyrical and humorous. 

“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” tells the story of the titular barber, portrayed by Nicholas Christopher, who returns to London after serving his wrongfully convicted 15-year sentence in hopes of reuniting with his wife, Lucy, and daughter, Johanna, portrayed by Maria Bilbao. 

Upon his arrival, squalid pie-shop owner Mrs. Lovett, portrayed by Jeanna de Waal, informs Sweeney that Lucy poisoned herself and that the tyrannical Judge Turpin, portrayed by Jamie Jackson, abducted Johanna. Thus begins the tale of the demon barber of Fleet Street, which features a sharp razor and ravishing hunger for vengeance.

Christopher performs Sweeney with an electrifying blend of madness and methodical precision that leaves the audience both fascinated and fearful. The nightmarish barber effortlessly oscillates between moments of sheer insanity that instill terror in the audience, as well as a calm, collected demeanor that conceals the malevolence within. 

However, amidst the atmospheric brilliance of Christopher’s performance, there are moments where his vocals are unintelligible. It could be a result of the challenging rapid-fire rhyming and intricate sequences of the soundtrack that render his words nearly indecipherable. But he isn’t the only performer difficult to hear, as the underscoring of the 26-piece pit orchestra occasionally overshadows the performer’s voices.

While the entire cast delivers a stellar performance, this minor hiccup highlights the challenges of Sondheim’s intricate lyrical density and composition. But it does not refute the magnificence of Sondheim’s oeuvre as each song embodies a profound and textured harmony, which is punctuated by deftly crafted lyrics and wit. 

Tobias, portrayed by “Heartstopper” actor Joe Locke, is initially a servant boy working for the rival barber, Adolfo Pirelli, portrayed by Raymond J. Lee. He eventually becomes Mrs. Lovett’s quasi-son when Sweeney kills Pirelli. Locke brilliantly encapsulates the naivety and innocence of young Tobias. It’s equally surprising and shocking that “Sweeney Todd” marks Locke’s Broadway debut as his vocals easily outshine that of the more experienced cast members. 

Despite the thorny tempo and metric complexities of the number “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir,” Locke enunciates each syllable meticulously, delivering them with a crisp and airy voice. But his true vocal prowess shines through in “Not While I’m Around.” Locke inhibits a wide vocal range, swiftly gliding through high and low registers with ease while conveying buoyant emotions and an ethereal aura. 

De Waal arguably steals the spotlight with her portrayal of the flamboyant Mrs. Lovett. With an enchanting blend of pretense, sweet innocence and disturbing madness fueled by her unrequited love for Sweeney, de Waal delivers a performance that is nothing short of bewitching. 

Her dedication to Sweeney morphed into disposing of his victims by ingeniously baking them into her mince pies that skyrocket her business — a decision she dubs as being “fine and respectable,” showcasing the dark humor woven into the narrative. 

What truly sets de Waal’s portrayal apart from the rest is her mastery of slapstick humor. The audience rumbles with laughter as a deadpan de Waal does a split on the staircase as she pushes herself down the steps; in another scene, she even spins in circles on the floor as she laughs manically. Her lust for Sweeney materializes into physical actions such as suggestively thrusting her hips towards him. These moments add a layer of comedic absurdity to the performance. 

The show wouldn’t be nearly as impactful nor lively if it weren’t for the atmosphere created by the set design and light technicians as well as the interludes of the narration ensembles. 

One of the notable lighting moments was during Act I when Sweeney was holding up his razor in his newly-established barber parlor above Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop. The background glowed red and a spotlight cast Sweeney’s dark, eerie shadow on the back wall, making him appear larger than life.

Another instance was during the song “City on Fire!”, in which the light technicians deftly deployed flashing downlights, mimicking the pounding sound of thunder. Simultaneously, ensemble members ominously apparated underneath and red floodlights resembled a tainted red sky while cast members hauntingly danced. This scene stands out as a remarkable illustration of the plot’s swift descent into madness as Sweeney, Mrs. Lovett and Tobias meet tragic ends.

Revived with razor-sharp precision, this macabre emotionally-strung masterpiece delivers a thrilling tale of revenge, deception and witty humor. With each note sung and each throat slit, the production weaves a frightening tapestry that immerses the audience in the chilling atmosphere of this 1979 tale, making it an unforgettable theatrical experience. “Attend the tale” — you will not regret it.

Starting Feb. 9, Aaron Tveit and Sutton Foster have taken on the roles of Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett, respectively.

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About the Contributor
Jenna Zaza, Arts & Culture Editor
Jenna Zaza is The Statesman's Arts and Culture Editor. She is a second-year journalism major with a minor in Korean studies and on the fast-track MBA program. When she is not writing, she is probably reading a book with a cup of coffee in hand.
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