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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Theatre review: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street gets up-close and personal

Challenges of staging in non-traditional venue also becomes one of its strengths

Mere steps from Vancouver’s Blood Alley, you couldn’t ask for a better setting than the Gastown storefront transformed into the site-specific setting for the darkly funny musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

In this Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler penned show, Sweeney Todd is the story of Benjamin Barker, a young barber sentenced to hard labour in Australia by the corrupt Judge Turpin who, lusting after Barker’s wife, wanted him out of the way.  Now returned to London, Barker has taken on the alias Sweeney Todd and sets up shop above Mrs Lovett’s Pie Shop to seek his revenge. As the body count increases from Todd’s “closest shave ever”, the two hatch a plan to deal with the growing number of cadavers, by baking the remains into her pies.

It also turns out that Todd’s daughter Johanna, who he last saw as an infant, is now Turpin’s ward and plans to marry her.  As luck would have it though, the young sailor Anthony, whom Todd had befriended after being rescued at sea, has fallen in love with Johanna and hatches a plan of his own to rescue her from Turpin’s clutches.

Reviewed at a preview performance, this often literally in-your-face show complete with its very own bloody splash zone, features a fearless cast in these tight quarters, required to perform mere inches away from the audience.

As an ensemble, the space is frequently filled with a sound that is gloriously over-the-top, reverberating through the converted store, no doubt shaking some of the dust from the rafters into the actual pies some audience members pre-purchased as part of their ticket.

But while at times there is a wonderfully eerie intimacy that is created in this production, the space also creates its challenges.

Using pretty much every available nook and cranny not already taken up by musical director Wendy Bross Stuart’s tight little three-piece orchestra, and the audience, director Chris Adams and choreographer Nicol Spinola are forced to stage the action with actor’s backs to various sections of the audience.

While never for too long, the ironic result is a surprising distance in any sustained emotional connection for such an intimate venue. Given the staging, due to the unique nature of the room’s set-up, each audience member is presented with a slightly different show.

From my vantage point, I was largely (and disappointingly) excluded from the murders of Todd’s patrons, but got the full impact from scenes in the pie shop itself. My theatre companion, on the other side of the central staging area complained of having missed other scenes. One has to wonder what the experience would be like for audience members at others points in the room, especially those in the back of the narrow room as they tried to watch the action on the other end.

Despite its challenges, in those moments when the full impact of the show are realized (and visible), it is giddily delightful. One of the most successful, at least from my vantage point, was in a scene where the ensemble morphed into the inmates of the madhouse.

And while there were also some issues with Sondheim’s idiosyncratic phrasing, on the whole this cast delivers in the music department.

As the title character, Warren Kimmel bring his big, beautiful voice to the role. Refusing any comparison to Johnny Depp’s trademark quirkiness in the film version, he is solidly angry and single-minded in exacting his revenge. Colleen Winton brings a delightfully strange lovability to the role of Mrs Lovett. The two have great fun together in “A Little Priest” and “By the Sea”.

Jonathan Winsby goes really big and embraces the ridiculousness of Adolfo Pirelli with tremendous results, and Oliver Castillo does some nice work as Tobias Ragg, especially in the oddly touching “Not While I’m Around”.

As Anthony and Joanna, Alex Nicoll and Rachel Park warm up considerably in a superior act two, giving us one of the most heartfelt moments in the all-too-short reprise of “Ah, Miss”.

Emily Fraser’s costumes are spot-on and Madeleine Suddaby gives everyone a suitable deadly pallor and zombie-like sunken eyes. Working in the odd space is a challenge for lighting designer Andie Lloyd with some lights reflecting directly into the audience’s eyes.  Fight directors Mike Kovac and Ryan Bolton help to create some believable action scenes, no easy feat with an audience so close.

While this production of Sweeney Todd isn’t without its challenges for both actor and audience, it still manages to be an entertainingly clever production. Thanks in a large part to its unique venue, this is a Halloween treat worth exploring (assuming you can still get tickets). Just be sure to watch out for the razor blades.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler. Directed by Chris Adams. A production of The Snapshots Collective. On stage at 348 Water Street, Vancouver until November 1. Visit for tickets and information.

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