Theater & Dance
Review
"Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street"

By: Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler
Produced by: TheatreWorks
Featuring: David Studwell as Sweeney Todd, Tory Ross as Mrs. Lovett, Spencer Kiely as Toby, Mindy Lym as Johanna, Mia Fryvecind Gimenez as Beggar Woman, Jack Mosbacher as Anthony, Martin Rojas Dietrich as Beadle, Noel Anthony as Pirelli, Lee Strawn as Judge Turpin, and an ensemble including Nik Duggan, Dominic Michael Lewis, Caitlin O’Leary, Nick Schmittzeh, Kelly Swartz, and Caroline Altman
Directed by: Robert Kelley
When: October 8 through November 2, 2014
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View, California
Running time: 150 minutes; one intermission
Tickets: $19-$74 (discounts available). Visit theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960

Watch the sitzprobe for TheatreWorks's production of "Sweeney Todd."

David Studwell, Tory Ross
Kevin Berne / TheatreWorks
David Studwell as Sweeney Todd and Tory Ross as Mrs. Lovett contemplate revenge iin Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd," playing at TheatreWorks October 8 through November 2, 2014, at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.
It's Mrs. Lovett (and her pies) what brings in the customers!
But, of course, it's the demon barber who provides the meaty fillings in 'Sweeney Todd' at TheatreWorks
October 17, 2014

If you love those little meat pies British restaurants are known for, it might be a little difficult to stomach the ones made by the charming Mrs. Lovett in her little London bake shop in Stephen Sondheim’s macabre musical masterpiece, "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street."

The well-matched duo of TheatreWorks Artistic Director Robert Kelley and Musical Director William Liberatore make this version of "Sweeney" one massive bloody slosh at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, through Nov. 2.

Since it slashed its way onto Broadway in 1979 (winning a slew of Tonys that year), the bitter, vindictive Sweeney (David Studwell) and his conniving, flirtatious sidekick, the meat-pie mistress Mrs. Lovett (Tory Ross) are a match made for mania. Studwell is solid, playing the barber as a brooding, inwardly seething man who has been dishonestly imprisoned for 15 long years, losing both his wife and daughter in the process. Think Robert Downey Jr. when he’s been wronged, and you’ll get a good idea of Studwell’s menacingly interpretation.

Yet it’s Ross’s heartfelt portrayal of Mrs. Lovett that lingers longest after the curtain call. It’s hard to take one’s eyes off Ross whenever she’s on stage. By turn, she’s flirty, dirty, chatty and sassy, and she is all-around terrific. When she serves up her version of "A Little Priest" — actually a droll musical treatise about those special meat pies she makes and who ... er, what is in them — it’s divine. A sample lyric: "If it’s stringy, it’s a fiddle player."

There are pleasures aplenty in Kelley’s interpretation of "Sweeney," which he has moved from 19th Century London to 1940 when London was ravaged by air raids and bombings during World War II. It’s an era that theatergoers are more familiar with and it enables scenic designer Andrea Bechert to create a set that includes a giant subway tunnel (with a ubiquitous British "Way Out" sign on the wall) used as a bomb shelter during air raids.

Kelley also breaks the fourth wall by having his actors bounce around, sometimes in the balcony, sometimes into the audience, and bounding up and down the aisles.

Studwell and Ross are buffeted by a talented cast of rascals (a hapless Lee Strawn as Judge Turpin, who lusted after Sweeney’s wife then found a way to frame him for a crime he didn’t commit, and a comical take on the judge’s associate, Beadle Bamford, by Martin Rojas Dietrich) as well as the lovebirds Anthony Hope (an earnest Jack Mosbacher) and Johanna (the lithe and lovely Mindy Lym).

Anthony and Johanna are just about the only characters in "Sweeney" who exemplify the positive virtues of compassion, honesty and tenderness. It must say something about Sondheim’s faith in goodness, because these two are almost the only ones walking off into the sunset at play’s end.

But in the meantime, there are so many pleasures to enjoy — even when they involve letting innocent men sit in the red leather barber chair, slitting their throats and sliding them down the ingenious trap door to the large flaming furnace below.

It’s a testament to Liberatore’s musical capabilities that he stimulates his nine-member orchestra to sound just as vibrant and full as a much-larger orchestra while playing Jonathan Tunick’s original orchestrations. And, while other Sondheim musicals have more well-known numbers, the audience likely recognized several here: "Pretty Women," "Not While I’m Around," the appealing "Kiss Me" duet, and the sweet, lilting "Johanna."

As grisly as this production can get (despite Kelley’s downplaying that side at times), it’s also quite charming and pleasing. "Kiss Me" has almost an operatic rhythm to it, and Ross’s reassuring tenderness to the frightened, anxious Tobias Ragg (a wild-eyed, spot-on characterization by Spencer Kiely) in "Not While I’m Around" is very near perfect. She also brings her special blend of tart and longing to "By the Sea" wherein she dreams of a perfect life with "Mr. T" by the sea, with Studwell nodding absentmindedly "Anything You Say" all the while.

There are a few slow passages, sometimes brought on by a sound system that garbles the British dialect in the high-ceiling of the theater. And, well into the story, it’s quite disconcerting to see the now-deceased Sweeney Todd and the beggar woman he has killed (a full-out mad performance by Mia Fryvecind Gimenez) pick themselves up and hurry off. There must be a better way to stage that.

Costume designer Fumiko Bielefeldt does her usual magic, making all the Londoners look appropriately upscale or down-on-their-heels as their roles demanded, and Steven B. Mannshardt’s lighting works well.

Overall, there are so many devilishly good moments to this rendition of the demon barber’s tale that it’s a good idea to just sit back and relish Sondheim’s incredible score and unmatchable lyrics. Just don’t bring wee ones with you.

(And keep your eyes on the radiant Tory Ross as Mrs. Lovett. She’s irresistible.)

Thanks to an anonymous donor, TheatreWorks served up a special treat after its opening night performance. At first some audience members gasped when they saw uniformed caterers carrying little boxes full of "meat pies" on long lollipop sticks. But they soon got into the spirit of the night when they discovered the pies were made of apple, berry and other fruits.

Email Joanne Engelhardt at joanneengelhardt@comcast.net

Spencer Kiely
Kevin Berne / TheatreWorks
Spencer Kiely as Tobias invites customers to sample Mrs. Lovett's meat pies in Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd," playing at TheatreWorks October 8 through November 2, 2014, at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.
Mindy Lyn, Noel Anthony
Kevin Berne / TheatreWorks
Mindy Lym as Johanna, held in an insane asylum by Noel Anthony as Jonas Fogg in Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd," playing at TheatreWorks October 8 through November 2, 2014, at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.


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