Review: 'Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street' at Connecticut Theatre Company

Tony Palmieri

  • Connecticut Critic

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (directed by Duane Campbell for Connecticut Theater Company) tells the story of a barber, Benjamin Barker (Alex Kirstukas), who returns to London under the pseudonym of Sweeney Todd with a young sailor, Anthony Hope (Robert Melendez) after a 15 year exile imposed by the crooked Judge Turpin (Hal Chernoff). Turpin ran Todd out of town on false charges in order to pursue Todd’s wife, Lucy (Jackie DeMaio).  Enter Mrs. Lovett (Chelsea Derby), an impoverished purveyor of meat pies and fast friend to Todd. Lovett informs Todd that Turpin, with the help of his servant Beadle Bamford (Ryan Pipke) lured Lucy to the judge’s home, where she was raped. Afterward, Lovett says, Lucy poisoned herself and Turpin took Todd’s daughter, Johanna (Katerina Belales) as his ward. Anthony, in the meantime, falls in love with a girl he sees singing in a window. Unbeknownst to him, it is Johanna who has captured his heart, and he hers. As the play progresses, Todd’s deep need for revenge, coupled with Lovett’s greed and desire for Todd, result in a macabre symbiotic relationship where the victims of Todd’s razors become the meat in Lovett’s pies.  Todd’s first victim, a rival barber Adolfo Pirelli (Tullio Milani) leaves Mrs. Lovett with her own sort of ward by the name of Toby (David Nunner.) Meanwhile Turpin has embraced his own inappropriate desire for his ward, Johanna, and has sworn to murder Anthony if he ever returns for her.  As the play progresses, more secrets are revealed, twists are navigated and desperation grows. 

It is a complicated plot, to be sure, 90 percent of it playing out in song – and not just song, but Sondheim, meaning it is complex and rich with haunting, dissonant harmonies. My biggest worry when seeing a local production of a sophisticated show like Sweeney Todd is that it will prove too much of an undertaking for a non-professional theater. Musically, there was no need for worry here. The ensemble begins the show with the gorgeous and intricate “Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” which starts with a single voice and builds to a tapestry of harmony that resonates within the entire space. In fact, every ensemble piece is gorgeous, though awkwardly staged on a cramped set (if you see it, do yourself a favor and don’t sit in the back 5 rows). Other standout musical numbers include “Johanna” (Robert Melendez) the show-stopping “A Little Priest” (Chelsea Derby & Alex Kirstukas at their comic best) and “By the Sea” (Chelsea Derby & Alex Kirstukas). Musical Director Nathaniel Baker has done his job well here. 

The richness and attention to detail within the musical aspect of this production sets up an expectation for the other elements that is sometimes left unsatisfied. Sweeney Todd is about desperation; it is an intimate look at people who have reached a point where morality is secondary to desire – be it for revenge, sexual satisfaction or wealth. It is a rich show, but its richness lies not in its glamour, but in its squalor,  and squalor is a thing that is conspicuously absent in this production. The costumes are lavish and pristine, with little to denote the difference between the wealthy judge and the poverty-stricken Mrs. Lovett.  This has a major effect on the storytelling; we, as audience, need to see the same desperation we hear or nothing makes sense. This extends to compliance with the script. When a character’s dress is repeatedly referred to as a ‘simple muslin gown,’ and we clearly see that the character is outfitted in a formal beaded taffeta ball gown, we focus on the disparity when we should be immersed in the story. 

This was not the only piece of the production that lacked ugliness. I felt that, across the board, the heat needed to be turned up – that the emotional simmer reached by the end of the play would have made a strong beginning point. This was likely not helped by the use of canned musical tracks instead of live musicians. Without the collaborative safety of a band, an actor’s ability to make strong emotional choices is hampered by a timer. If a word is dropped or a vocal entrance missed, there’s no recourse – no subtle correction can be made when the human element is removed. This, I think, makes it difficult to make a song one’s own – to really let go emotionally. But regardless of the reason, I felt the stakes could have, and should have, been raised. The most obvious case involved Hal Chernoff’s mild portrayal of Judge Turpin, the villain of the story. In “Johanna (Mea Culpa)” a song in which he wrestles with his own growing sexual feelings for his ward, he misses an important transition. In the first verse, Turpin prays to God for deliverance while punishing himself with a whip, but by the end of the song, he is begging Johanna to deliver him; he is giving in to his desire. It should begin with religious fervor and end with a sexual release, or at least an abandoning of his previous morality.

Unfortunately, it remains one note throughout, making a potentially powerful moment a rather mild one.  Oppositely problematic for me was David Nunner’s portrayal of Toby – I believe, when portraying a character of limited mental capacity, it is wise to err on the side of subtlety.  Nunner’s performance walks the line a little too closely for my taste, sometimes creating humor where it shouldn’t be. I found that, by overplaying the role, a lot of the character’s intended emotional impact was sacrificed. That said, his performance of “Not While I’m Around” was just right – nuanced and sweetly sung.

Lastly, the casting of Chelsea Derby as Mrs. Lovett was perhaps the most confusing choice of the show for me. She is a marvelous talent with a strong voice – arguably the best actor in the show (her accent is spot-on in a sea of inconsistency, and her character’s thought-process is always apparent, which can be rare in musical theater) but Derby is simply too young for the role by many years. While both Todd and Lovett are cast young, Kirstukas is aged with makeup. It is clear that a decision was made not to age Derby, but instead to play-up her youth and good looks. This, combined with her tidy, figure-hugging costumes and youthful singing voice, make it very difficult to believe her in this role, despite her obvious stage-presence. Lovett needs to be, at the least, Todd’s age in order for the timeline of the script to make sense. 

It surprised me, I have to say, to hear the extraordinary vocal talent of this cast in a community theater production. The work they’ve done to achieve such sublimity is nothing short of phenomenal. And while the perfectionist in me wishes all aspects of the show were as finely tuned as the singing, the musical theater nerd in me is still basking in the beauty of those harmonies. Sweeney Todd runs through October 30.