By Courtney Leigh Church, December 5, 2019
Co-presented by London-based Musical Theatre Productions and the up-and-coming company Allswell Productions, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” has arrived for a short time on the Grand Theatre’s McManus Stage.
The play tells the story of Sweeney Todd (Jeff Holbrough), who, fifteen years prior, led a normal life as a barber in London with his wife, Lucy, and their then-infant daughter, Joanna (Nicola Klein). Lucy’s beauty, however, won her the unwelcome affection of the corrupt justice, Judge Turpin (Patrick Hoffer), who then framed and sentenced Todd for a crime he did not commit. With Todd out of the way, Turpin had a clear path to Lucy; yet his lust for her lead to her eventual demise. With Todd in exile, Turpin adopted the newly orphaned Johanna as his ward.
Fifteen years later, Todd has returned to London under a new name and makes his way back to his old shop on Fleet Street. Mrs. Lovett (Melissa Metler), proprietor of the pie shop next door, recognizes him and catches him up on the past fifteen years, instilling in Todd a thirst for vengeance and a renewed penchant for pomade. He re-opens his barbershop in hopes to lure Judge Turpin into his chair and under his straight-razor blade.
Performances in this production of “Sweeney Todd” were strong across the board, but the clear standout was Metler’s Mrs. Lovett. Everything from her vocals to her minute facial expressions were near perfect and her Cockney accent was endearing, especially in scenes with the young Tobias Ragg (Blake Carey). Her Lovett is kind-hearted and opportunistic, a humorous complement to Todd’s constant contriving and obsessive razor-honing.
Holbrough delivered a decent performance of Sweeney Todd overall, though it took him several scenes to settle into the role. Stiff-backed and hands hidden in pockets, Holbrough’s movement was blocky early on which undercut some of his reactions to his family’s emotionally moving backstory. His Todd also stands apart from the rest of the cast as the only character who does not affect an English accent. On the one hand, a watered-down accent would make some sense after fifteen years in exile; on the other hand, in dialogue his voice feels a note off with respect to the rest of the cast. Having said that, Holbrough’s bass-baritone voice is perfect for Todd’s songs where his vocal contrast shines. He lets loose as the unhinged barber in “Epiphany” and “Little Priest.”
On the higher end of the vocal spectrum, Klein shone in her role as Johanna. The power of her vocals, especially in “Kiss Me,” was impressive. What’s more, the contrast between the extensive vocal range and Johanna’s constant physical confinement worked wonderfully in scenes where she battles Judge Turpin for a semblance of autonomy.
Jaclyn Siegel’s performance as Beggar Woman and AJ MacDonald’s Anthony are also noteworthy. Pitiable beggar and hair-raising harbinger, Siegel’s performance was as creepy as it was compelling. In contrast, MacDonald’s empathetic and soft-spoken Anthony served as a grounded, yet optimistic, breath of fresh air in the dimly-lit streets of industrial London.
Hoffer and Ben Kennes did excellent work in portraying the play’s villains, Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford. Hoffer’s Turpin is stone cold and haughty; Johanna’s discomfort is unmistakable from the back of the house, even if the arrogant Turpin himself can’t see it while standing right next to her. Kennes’ Beadle was slightly too smarmy; while funny at first, the overacting was noticeable in such an intimate venue. Where his acting was a bit over-the-top, his singing in “Sweet Polly Plunkett” and “Tower of Bray” was delightful.
The strength of the performances was supported by the production team’s excellent rendering of the shadowy streets of London.
Sitting in front of Joe Recchia’s set is like walking directly onto Fleet Street. The welcoming and colourful “Mrs. Lovett’s Meat Pies” painted above an intricate shop face stands in stark contrast to the eerily red “BARBER” in all capitals on the adjacent wall. Winding stairs lead up to Todd’s barber shop which is simply decorated and capped with a large battered window that sets the scene. On stage left is a towering balcony accessible by a rickety wooden ladder. The colours are muted except for a few props that pop.
Elona Thielan’s costume design is good across the board, though some of the members of the ensemble are more simplistic than others which results in unclear social distinctions between characters. There are some excellent standout costumes, however, include the Beggar Woman’s baggy overcoat and Pirelli’s (Matt Butler) over-the-top purple barbering garb.
The production’s only real hiccups were sound mixing and microphone issues, especially in the second act. Certain members of the ensemble were muted throughout while others were perfectly clear. At times the sound system crackled behind the dialogue or popped loudly mid-song, which was distracting from the house, but the cast did not seem to miss a beat.
This is the second show for Allswell Productions following “Dogfight” in September 2018 at the Wolf Performance Hall here in London. The emergent theatre company is composed predominantly of youth and their mandate is to lead “a younger generation into leadership roles in community theatre.” Their inaugural production won three Brickenden awards in 2018, an impressive feat for a brand-new company.
The cast and creative team have held true to their mandate in “Sweeney Todd;” the production’s youthful energy was apparent from start to finish. While the play does lack the polish of a professional production, it certainly exceeds the expectations of an amateur troupe. If you’re one of the lucky ones to have snagged tickets for the rest of the sold-out run of “Sweeney Todd,” I daresay you’ll Lovett.
SWEENEY TODD: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Allswell Productions and Musical Theatre Productions
Nov. 28 – Dec. 7
Grand Theatre McManus Stage
Buy Tickets Online
This production is SOLD OUT.
Courtney Church is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English and Writing Studies at Western University, where she researches modern and contemporary British theatre. Most of her time in the theatre is spent behind the scenes, tinkering with set design and thinking about props.