By Bridgette M. Redman
‘Tis the season when many theaters are selecting shows that are spooky, creepy and tinged with horror.
What A Do Theater celebrates the holiday of ghouls with its production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” They greet audiences with rows of pumpkins and a bonfire outside and then bowls of bloody fingers and eyeballs inside. They leave no doubt that their interpretation of the tale of Fleet Street’s Demon Barber will be very Halloween-ey.
Indeed, that is the driving theme throughout the production. The musical is presented as a horror show, filled with bloody body parts, freakish people and ghoulish makeup. It is certainly an interpretation that is available in Sondheim’s story of the Sweeney Todd, a barber obsessed with revenge because a corrupt judge ruined his life and committed irreparable violence upon his wife while townspeople stood around and watched.
His revenge is one of the sicklier tales of folklore and literature, right up there with Titus Andronicus. For he murders those he shaves and delivers their bodies to Mrs. Lovett who cooks them up in her pies and serves them to Londoners.
They are a diabolical pair played by two powerful singers, Jeff Steirle and Ashlyn Nicole Shawver. Shawver returns after her powerhouse performances in What A Do’s “The Last Five Years” and “Doubt.” Her Mrs. Lovett is as different from those characters as possible. She’s as much a demon as Todd, taking inspiration more from Helena Bonham Carter than Angela Lansbury, two of the iconic figures who have played the role of Mrs. Lovett. She has a commanding stage presence and is impeccable in the skills that make a performer great. She is unwavering in her interpretation, accent and movement choices, making her one of the strongest performers on the stage.
Steirle has the musical talent to conquer the demanding challenges of the title role. He has a deep, powerful voice that establishes him as dangerous and evil. This particular Todd is one that is played unrelentingly evil. It is difficult to ever sympathize with him or to understand why he wins the loyalty and love of Anthony Hope and Mrs. Lovett. He never truly connects with either one of them, and there is no arc that he travels. Steirle carries the same amount of despair and obsession from the first scene to the end. These choices – either directorial or actor – make Lovett’s “Down by the Sea” number an uneasy fit, and is perhaps why the wigmaker duet between Sweeney and Anthony is left out.
Marcus Jordan’s Antony and Megan Jacobson’s Johanna give the audience the few characters to whom a real connection can be made. This is underscored by their costuming and makeup, for they are among the few who are not turned into gothic freaks or Halloween ghouls. They are the pools of normal in a world skewed with evil and horror. Jordan is honorable and naive, the picture of what Sweeney Todd might have been when he was still Benjamin Barker.
Jacobson similarly provides a mirror of what her mother, Lucy, might have been before her horrific assault. She is sweet and innocent, but sufficiently strong willed to resist the abominations that others attempt to force on her. Anthony and Johanna’s duets are beautiful and one of the few moments of hope in the musical.
Avery Beck puts in a winsome performance as Tobias Ragg, the beggar boy who starts out as servant to the street mountebank and barber Adolfo Pirelli and later becomes Mrs. Lovett’s assistant. She has a beautiful voice that rings with the sound of youth, fear and survival. She plays the half-wit well, though her final transformation is overly sudden, perhaps because too many of Toby’s discoveries get made off stage and he seems oblivious to the bloodied limbs that surround him when he works the grinder. It is almost comical that he notices a hair and fingernail in a pie he is eating when there is an amputated leg on the floor below him.
The ensemble makes the most of its gothic garb to add to the play’s melodrama. They are skilled at providing on-spot musical cues with the banging of feet and mugs, and help create the difficult scenes of the rape and teeth pulling on a stage with very little separation from the audience.
As always at What A Do, the production values are high, with complex lighting plots and a near-constant sound track. Some of the sounds were confusing, as it was unclear what they were supposed to be, but most contributed to creating the constant mood of a thriller.
Joshua Olgine deserves high praise for the design of a highly complicated set built in the low-ceilinged space. He believably created the impression of a three-story building with stairs and tilted floors that allowed each structure to be built on the same level. Each set piece rotated, allowing it to serve multiple roles as exteriors, interiors and two different homes.
What A Do’s “Sweeney Todd” works best as a spooky Halloween tale filled with outstanding music and vocal performances. It is both thriller and melodrama, trodding heavily over Sondheim’s subtlety, but providing a visual treat vastly superior to most offerings in the horror genre.
What A Do Theatre, 4071 W. Dickman Road, Springfield. Friday-Saturday through Nov. 17, plus Wednesday, Oct. 31 and Thursday, Nov. 8 (pay what you can; $5 minimum). $18-$20. 269-282-1953. http://www.WhatADo.org