Review: Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre’s 'Sweeney Todd'

Christian Jost

  • OnStage D.C./New York Critic

Winchester VA - I for one, am a huge fan of the Sweeney Todd movie, if for no other reason than Johnny Depp’s performance alone. That being said, I had high expectations for SSMT’s production of Sweeney Todd, and they sure did deliver. The movie is good, but it doesn’t let the viewer see the full spectacle you experience when the show is done live right in front of you. Sweeney Todd was originally penned by Stephen Sondheim, with the book by Hugh Wheeler. The first production opened in 1979 and went on to win numerous Tony’s, including Best Musical. The show follows the life of Benjamin Barker as he returns to London after being wrongfully imprisoned and takes on a new persona, Sweeney Todd. He seeks restitution and eventually revenge, and, well, the rest is the play and he wouldn’t want us to give it away!

This production had some very good performances, including Christopher Sanders in the titular role. Sanders gave an impressive performance, although at times the acting felt a little over the top. Now, granted, in a show like this that is expected, but the performance seemed very “one level”, meaning he didn’t give us those real, human, moments that Sweeney Todd is supposed to have in order for the audience to accept his character: A broken man who has lost his way. That’s actually the one big note I had for the show in general; it all seemed very one dimensional, the lights were always at the same level, the set was always dark and solemn, the characters never seemed to have moments of humanity. This is a dark show, but it’s also a show where everyone feels like what they’re doing is justified and sensible.  I never really felt that. There were also standout performances from Christopher Prasse as Anthony, Gabriella Francis as Johanna, and Michael Forest as The Beadle. The true star of this production was Dolly Stevens as Mrs. Lovett. She gave the role every emotion it called for, whether it was humor, lust, greed, guilt, etc.  She gave all her energy to us and we then in return we gave it back to her. 

 Dolly Stevens and Christopher Sanders. Photo by C.King Photography.

Dolly Stevens and Christopher Sanders. Photo by C.King Photography.

The thing that made this production so entertaining was the ensemble. They were almost constantly on stage, watching, listening, moving set pieces, singing, etc. They were the most believable part of the show, always being in the moment. The ensemble in this musical serves as a Greek chorus of sorts, always reprising “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” with new information in it. It’s vital that the ensemble gets the audience’s attention and they definitely had mine throughout. I also always approve of a diverse ensemble, and although this one may have been as racially diverse as others I’ve seen, it was also diverse with body types. There were tall men, tall women, short men, short women, bigger men, children sized people, and many others. It looked like how a neighborhood would actually look, everyone being different. Some standout ensemble members were Sarah Summerwell, Madelyn Pyles, and Josh Walker.

Other impressive things about this production were the music, the costumes, and director’s choices. There’s no doubt that Sondheim is some of the hardest Broadway music to sing and play, and this cast and orchestra pulled it off flawlessly. I give credit to Thomas Albert, the Musical Director and Conductor for that. The costumes helmed by Jennifer Flitton Adams were also a remarkable part of this show.  Everything was beautiful, even the things that were supposed to resemble poverty were designed with detailed elegance. Director and Choreographer Edward Carignan also did some lovely things with this show, whether it was casting an older couple for the leads, synchronized movement for the ensemble, an interesting approach to the murder presented in the show, or a very clever opening, he did a good job all around. The set was also beautiful; I thank William Pierson for allowing me to view his work.

In conclusion, I do recommend this show because it is something different. Take a break from the Legally Blondes, the Rent’s, and the other modern rock musicals and go enjoy the genius of Sondheim. This show is up through the end of this weekend and I encourage everyone to visit Winchester, VA and experience this well crafter piece of art! Tickets available here: