Few barbers gain fame—or, better yet, infamy—equal to that of Sweeney Todd. The iconic demonic barber of Fleet Street began terrorizing imaginations in The String of Pearls, a penny dreadful from the mid-1800s. Since then, he’s appeared in many dramatic turns, most notably as the titular character in Stephen Sondheim’s Tony Award–winning musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Now, Todd has taken residence on Clematis Street as part of an outrageously awesome production of Sweeney Todd, onstage at Palm Beach Dramaworks through August 6.
Shane R. Tanner stars as Todd, the vengeful barber who returns to London after spending 15 years imprisoned in Australia. In an effort to come in deathly close contact with the judge who exiled him—and kidnapped his wife, Lucy, and daughter, Johanna—Todd sets up shop above Mrs. Lovett’s (Ruthie Stephens) failing pie business. Consumed by his hunger for retribution, Todd commits murder after murder, feeding the bodies of his victims to Mrs. Lovett, who uses the fresh meat for her now-popular pies.
Much like Mrs. Lovett’s baked goods, Sweeney Todd has earned a ravenous cult following since its debut in 1979. Whether you’re new to the musical or an avid fan, Palm Beach Dramaworks’ production is sure to thrill, thanks to its top-tier cast, spectacular musicians, and captivating technical design.
A favorite of the Dramaworks stage, Shane R. Tanner is at his best in the role of Sweeney Todd. He’s practically unrecognizable, with unruly salt-and-pepper hair and a furrowed, angry brow reminiscent of the Beast in Beauty and the Beast. He attacks each song like a bulldog, giving every ounce of his energy without sacrificing his voice. Most importantly, he’s the perfect straight man to Mrs. Lovett, vivaciously brought to life by Ruthie Stephens.
Originally from England, Stephens finds unique ways to phrase Mrs. Lovett’s legendary zingers. From her cockney accent to the way she lets out certain one-liners with breathless irony, Stephens has a natural comedic gift that is on full display here. Her numbers are crowd favorites, especially “The Worst Pies in London” and “By the Sea,” with the latter eliciting so many chuckles it deserves its own spinoff. I’d pay to see Mrs. Lovett and Mr. Todd star in an Odd Couple–esque comedy set along the English Channel, wouldn’t you?
The other principal players are just as skilled. Jennifer Molly Bell sings heavenly aria after heavenly aria as Johanna, while Paul Louis Lessard earnestly woos her with heartfelt renditions of the lovely melody that carries her name. Michael McKenzie is haunting as Judge Turpin, portraying this Machiavellian villain with an air of humor. And as his sidekick, The Beadle, Jim Ballard delivers a handful of memorable moments, particularly his full enjoyment of Stephens’ Mrs. Lovett and their “Parlor Songs” duet.
The chorus is also very worth of praise. The handful of men and women that comprise it effortlessly weave in and out of various scenes, contributing impressive solos and charming embellishments, as is the case with the dancing duo who flanks Stephens in “By the Sea.” There are only 13 people in the show, but this ensemble makes it feel like a cast of thousands.
I could spend hours and hundreds of words outlining this production’s many merits. The steam punk–inspired scenery by Michael Amico is the perfect macabre playground. Lighting designer Donald Edmund Thomas elegantly plays with shadow and tosses spurts of blood-red light onto the scrim to accent a kill. Musical director Manny Schvartzman makes this score sore, a difficult task given that there’s accompaniment to roughly 80 percent of the show. And the live musicians onstage make the drama that much more palpable.
If you’re in need of a good shave or just a heart-pumping evening of live theater, Sweeney Todd is not to be missed.