Judge Turpin (Steve Gunderson) is about to get more than a haircut from deranged barber Sweeny Todd (Sean Murray).
As I watched Cygnet Theatre Company's Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, I was reminded why I didn't much like the 2007 film version. Johnny Depp made a decent scoundrel, and Helena Bonham Carter was terrific, but all that blood and gore on the screen trivialized the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical from 1979. Slasher movies are a dime a dozen, and filching from the cinema's mother medium can't mask the genre's humdrum look and feel.
No, the theater is Sweeney Todd‘s only rightful home. If you've seen the Cygnet entry, you know damn well why. All that unsettling, primal music; all those stop-and-go people parades; all those bells; all those whistles; all that plaintive hue and cry; all those superb character traits and castings to type; all those unbelievable costumes and lights and that scowling set; all those full-throated under-stories; and thus all that potential for problems: This unspeakably splendid show gets past the latter through its unrelenting self-esteem and an unbreakable bond with the audience that only live performance can create. It positively seethes amid its jet-black (and sometimes riotously funny) portrayal of our darker selves. In the process, it's become a marker for theater's place in this community. And it will remain so for many, many seasons to come.
Todd (co-director Sean Murray) is a 19th-century London barber gone mad and bent on revenge—15 years earlier, dastardly Judge Turpin (Steve Gunderson) exiled him on trumped-up charges and raped his wife, eventually driving her insane. Todd's made it back to London, and his customers (including the judge) now have a way of disappearing under the weight of his straight razor. Their remains are consigned to the bake oven of the cackling, amorous Mrs. Lovett (Deborah Gilmour Smyth); subsequently, her meat-pie sales are off the charts (so much for the theory that humans don't taste very good).
The tragic climax is loopy with twists and turns—and there stands each member of this stellar cast at every one, bathed in an incomparable culture of ensemble. Murray and Smyth are peerless as Todd and Lovett, he of the evil countenance and she of the grasping, wheedling fingers. Meanwhile, co-director James Vasquez has masterfully fleshed out the characters' lives, melding concept with real life at every turn (even the lowly beggar woman lives and breathes through a healthy dose of promiscuity, her greatest asset).
Right after the show's opening, I predicted the run would be extended by two weekends. Less than 48 hours later, I got an e-mail announcing exactly that plan—and I couldn't have been less surprised. This entry is probably the finest production of a non-cabaret musical I've seen in my 16 years of theater commentary; it's also the standard by which all future Cygnet entries will be judged. Amid its abject magnificence, San Diego is the live performance capital of the universe right now. And, man, does that feel good. What a show!
This review is based on the opening-night performance of March 27. Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street runs through May 9 at The Old Town Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St. in Old Town. $27-$46. www.cygnettheatre.com. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.