Mark Benninghofen as Sweeney Todd and Matthew Rubbelke as Anthony Hope. photo by george byron griffiths.
The playbill accompanying Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street quotes composer/lyricist Steven Sondheim: “What Sweeney Todd really is is a movie for the stage.” And under Peter Rothstein’s able direction, light and sound are elevated to almost film-like importance.
An honest critique of Theater Latté Da’s high-spirited production could be made by listing cast, crew, and musicians—then pairing each name with a fawning adjective. Sally Wingert could carry the show as Mrs. Lovett even if she had less capable costars, but Mark Benninghofen is thunderous as the titular murderous barber. Most of Sweeney Todd’s character arc is demonstrated in the subtle stages of madness that Benninghofen manifests.
James Ramlet is the villainous Judge Turpin, a bleary-eyed, stubble-faced bureaucrat. Sitting still with his eyes closed during both iterations of the song “Pretty Women,” he manages an even more unsettling presence than the razor-wielding cannibal with whom he shares the stage.
Technical precision abounds: Reverb is applied to actors’ mics to transport them to echoing London sewers and like the best noir, shadow is used to illuminate character. When fresh-off-the-boat sailor Anthony (Mathew Rubbelke) moves center stage and faces the audience to sing a love song about a woman he has never met, he is lit from above; the blacked-out stage behind him and the deep shadows beneath his eyes contradict his claims of innocence.
This interplay of light and character is more terrifying than Todd’s mania, more crass than Turpin’s leers, and more corrupt than Lovett’s co-dependency. When Anthony finally meets Johanna (Elizabeth Hawkins), she seems not enamored but afraid. However, during the second half, Johanna and Anthony fall into a conventional love.
In a play that features the poor literally eating the rich, one might expect more biting commentary. Rothstein instead focuses on surreal, b-movie sensibilities, which include the brief but hilarious appearance of a chainsaw. In the end, Sweeney Todd has more in common with violent, spectacular popcorn flicks than with Shakespeare. Then again, I’ve never criticized Evil Dead II for not exploring the human condition more deeply and Sweeney Todd is spectacular.
The joints disappear completely between music, singing, and stage action. Consider a small moment: When Sara Ochs is introduced as the Beggar Woman, she is shuffling past the docks, singing a lamenting aria. Moments later, the aria heaves into a carnival-ish jazz as she begins jumping up and down, lifting her skirt, and propositioning Anthony. The instant he refuses, her shawl is clutched back around her neck and the orchestra is already moaning with her as she shuffles toward the next sailor (who happens to be Sweeney Todd.) The music is discordant and syncopated, and the actors pop and thrash across the stage effortlessly in time. Shakespeare it is not, but Sweeney Todd is an exuberant, epic popcorn opera.
See Theater Latté Da’s Sweeney Todd, directed by Peter Rothstein and with musical direction by Denise Prosek, Sept. 23 through Oct. 25, 2015 at The Ritz Theater. 345 13th Ave NE, Minneapolis. Get your tickets here.