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From the Bristol, TN Herald Courier
ROBERT McKINNEY | SPECIAL TO THE
Published: August 21, 2008
ABINGDON, Va. – “I saw Sweeny Todd on Broadway and this production is
much, much better,” enthused our visiting friend who joined us at Barter
Theatre on the afternoon of Aug. 17.
Mind you, this is a university professor who knows her theater, frequents the best professional performances in New York and elsewhere, travels widely and even holds season tickets for the renowned Pittsburg Opera.
And she doesn’t dish out praise lightly.
But I and the audience that day agreed with her if the applause and comments afterward are any indication.
The set is very impressive, the lighting is spot-on, the actors – especially Jill Anderson as Mrs. Nellie Lovett – are beyond superb and even the live keyboard accompaniment soared somehow out of the ordinary.
Barter seems to have outdone itself all season long, but even the most jaded playgoer will probably find this effort one of the best, if not the best, of the entire year.
But be warned. “Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is not for the faint of heart or those seeking a light trim, theatrically speaking. Razors fly, throats are slit by the dozens, the blood runs quite literally in buckets, greasy black smoke pours from the chimney and the meat pie business booms.
Make no mistake about it. This is no comedy but is dark stuff that explores, on a number of levels, the hopelessness and futility of mankind’s seemingly universal thirst for revenge. “Intense” is the only word to describe this play.
The story follows Benjamin Barker (Tom Zemon), a London barber, who is falsely convicted of a crime and sentenced to 15 years in an Australian prison colony by Judge Turpin (Mike Houlahan) who covets Barker’s beautiful young wife, whom he promptly rapes, causing her to swallow poison.
The good judge then seizes Barker’s young daughter (Amanda Johnson) and makes her his ward and later against her will, his intended wife.
Barker arrives back in London after serving the sentence, finds out what is going on and vows revenge on Judge Turpin and the judge’s co-conspirator, a beadle (Michael Hance). (A beadle was more or less a local constable and warrant officer.)
Barker sets up a barber shop on Fleet Street under the name of Sweeny Todd and waits for his chance. But just when he has Judge Turpin literally in position to have his throat slit, Todd is interrupted, and the judge manages to walk away unscathed. This upsets Todd so much that he decides to take out his revenge on all of London, throat by throat and his sharp razor keeps the blood spraying.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Lovett, who makes and sells meat pies that even she admits are the worst in London, has her hooks out for Todd as a lover and husband. It was Mrs. Lovett, in fact, who told Barker/Todd that his wife had drank poison.
Together, Lovett and Todd come up with an idea that will both help Todd dispose of his victims, and at the same time provide a steady supply of fresh meat that will greatly improve the quality of Lovett’s pies.
From there, the plot continues to darken, and we know that Todd’s quest for revenge will eventually be his own demise. And, of course, it is and in the most horrible of ways.
All of the actors are good, of course, as is to be expected, but Sarah Solie as the beggar woman stands out as especially good. A member of the Barter Players company up until this spring, Solie is quickly proving herself as a young actor well worth watching.
Once again, I caution that this is an intense play, and the songs by Stephen Sondheim, while often beautiful in melody, are a roiling witches’ stew of things dark and nasty.
I certainly have far less knowledge of the theater than our well-traveled friend, but it’s no surprise to me that Barter receives praise for all its productions, especially this one.
“Sweeney Todd” runs through Sept. 13 on Barter’s Main Stage. For dates, times and reservations, call <?XML:NAMESPACE PREFIX = SKYPE /> (276) 628-3991 or visit http://www.bartertheatre.com.
ROBERT McKINNEY is a freelance writer.