Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has been a Stephen Sondheim audience favorite since it premiered in 1979 and swept the Tony Awards. And for good reason. Setting aside any moral/social commentary that can be gleaned from it, the show has a dark but fascinating plot, bizarre characters, and intricate and exquisite music.
I could break out the superlatives to describe Actors Theatre of Indiana’s production, but the bottom line is, it’s excellent—probably one of if not the best I’ve ever seen, and since Sweeney is a popular musical staple, I have seen my fair share. ATI presents one amazing voice after another in its deliciously macabre production.
One element that sets this show apart is its location. The Studio Theater at Carmel’s Center for the Performing Arts resembles a black-box theater all grown up. From my vantage point in the front row, I had the disconcerting experience of actors being so close that I felt as if they were invading my personal space, which added to the surreal atmosphere. ATI maximizes its use of the small stage. One main set piece (scenic designer P. Bernard Killian) is multipurposed for every scene, embellished occasionally by a few chairs or tables.
Don Farrell as Todd is downright ghoulish (the white face and exaggerated black eye makeup completing the characterization thanks to makeup designer Daniel Klinger). His portrayal of the madman is only trumped by every one of his sublime musical numbers. Disturbing as Todd may be, when you examine character motivation, the one with the evil soul is the sociopathic Mrs. Lovett. Judy Fitzgerald plays a perfect foil for Farrell’s insanity: a cheerful, motherly, practical woman who, without breaking character, is ready to take out Toby (Caleb Wertz) immediately after their moving duet “Not While I’m Around.” Director Richard J. Roberts makes Lovett and Todd stark contrasts: one inherently evil and unaware of it; the other crazy and all too aware of it. This emphasizes that Lovett is, in fact, the villain, not Todd. Another inspired turn is the placement of Todd’s victims in the theater’s ceiling grating toward the end—another satisfyingly eerie touch.
Additional main cast members John Collins as Anthony, Paul Nicely as Judge Turpin, Craig Underwood as the Beadle, Elizabeth Hutson as Johanna, and John Vessels as Pirelli and the off-stage orchestra—and really, everyone both on and off stage whom I haven’t mentioned by name—exhibit their own virtuosity as well.
The only quibble I have, which made me take off half a star, is that only about half the cast uses accents. I believe in all or nothing. It’s a Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves thing.
You only have one more weekend to see this show. Go.