Theatre Review: “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”

Cynthia Jessup, staff writer

Mrs. Lovett and the Demon Pastry Shop

It’s that time of year, when ghouls and spooky long-dead tales are brought to life once again.

“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” produced by the Virginia Opera, made its debut at Mason’s Center for the Arts last weekend.

Written by Stephen Sondheim, it is originally a play that is now commonly performed as a musical. Ron Daniels directs the adaptation of this well-loved performance. Along with Adam Turner, the Musical Conductor, this play is harmoniously put together with an addition of music and opera performers. The main performers are initially opera singers who take on acting roles.

It begins with Sweeney Todd returning to London from a wrongful imprisonment, hungry for revenge. In his quest to fulfill his plan, he comes across his old neighbor, Mrs. Lovett, the owner of a rundown pastry shop. Upon recognizing Mr. Todd, Mrs. Lovett comes up with a clever and devious plan to help her fondly-loved neighbor in getting his revenge.

I was most impressed with Mrs. Lovett, though her lines were mostly lyrics, she exuded her comical and witty character and I was able to insert myself in her position and also enjoy her performance. She is naturally the comic relief of the play even though the play itself came across as a comedy. Mrs. Lovett, portrayed by Phyllis Pancella, steals the show from Sweeney Todd, played by Stephen Powell. Sweeney Todd acted more as a side character rather than the main character. This performance was heavily focused around Mrs. Lovett’s obsession to win Sweeney Todd’s affections. He was, of course, wrapped up in himself and brooding over the demise of those who faulted him.

This play, which is defined as a musical thriller, comes across as a comical tragedy. There was more laughter than gasps of horror or stifled screams. I found the play convincing a majority of the time. Other times were disillusioned when stage aides came in, not dressed for the performance, and took out bodies and pieces of the set as the scenes changed.

The actors were comical if not convincing. I found myself drawn in to see what happens during the dialogue, though when the music started and two songs were being sung at once, it was hard to pay attention to the performance while trying to decipher their lyrics. The super-script above the stage to illuminate the words did not help as it drew attention away from the performance.

The lighting and make-up of the actors was done superbly. As the story progressed, the actors looked, paler, wilder, less human. This brought to light the theme of losing oneself in order to accomplish a goal. This also indicated that things do not end as planned. Mrs. Lovett was obsessed with her own selfish gains and did not think of things should they go awry. Sweeney Todd was so obsessed with his revenge that he lost himself to the anger and bitterness and did not see the good things around him.

The music during the play added to theme of thrilling, but not in the ominous sense. It was played with lots of light, carefree notes to bring up anticipation, though it was lighthearted. I found it amusing, but not satisfying. Being an avid spectator of “Sweeney Todd” and its like, I found myself disappointed by its lack of terror that the audience needed to experience to fully understand Sweeney Todd’s state of mind.

By the night’s end, I did enjoy this light hearted performance. Caught off guard from expecting something else, as alluded to its title, it was amusing in its music and comical wit. I would recommend this play to anyone experiencing live theater performance for the first time. It keeps one engaged and wants one to seek out further entertainment.

Photo Credit: Lucid Frame Productions for Virginia Opera.

Stephen Power as Sweeney Todd and Phyllis Pancella as Mrs. Lovett in Virginia Opera’s production of “Sweeny Todd.”