“For what’s the sound of the world out there / Those crunching noises pervading the air?” sings the title character of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s 1979 musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in the show’s first-act finale. He then answers his own question with relish: “It’s man devouring man, my dear / And who are we to deny it in here?”
The story of Sweeney Todd is part of a literary and dramatic genre whose popularity challenged 19th-century Britain’s facade of imperial power and Christian moral superiority: gothic horror, which plumbed the emotional and psychic chaos swirling underneath the veneer of Victorian propriety. First appearing as a “penny dreadful” serial, “The String of Pearls,” in 1846, the tale may or may not have echoed the real-life case of a Parisian serial killer; but whether fact-based or purely fictional, it has gripped the public imagination for more than 150 years. It concerns a barber whose tonsorial parlor in London’s Fleet Street is really a house of horrors. Todd (his name echoes Tod, the German word for “death”) lures customers into his shop, slits their throats with his straight razor, and then drops them down a trapdoor, where they’re chuted into the basement of an adjacent bakery. There, Todd’s companion, Nellie Lovett, bakes the carcasses into meat pies.
Cannibalism—that’s the tale’s beauty part. By serving up the victims to a hungry public, Lovett and Todd not only break an ancient taboo; they also involve their hungry customers as willing, if unwitting, accomplices to their hideous crime.
Sondheim and Wheeler’s adaptation of the story, based on a 1973 play by Christopher Bond, emphasizes a social-protest element in the story: Sweeney’s crime spree is his maddened response to the injustice he has endured at the hands of wicked, hypocritical Judge Turpin, who raped Sweeney’s wife and sent Sweeney to an Australian penal colony on trumped-up charges. Returning to London —where he finds that Turpin has raised Sweeney’s daughter as his ward and now intends to marry her—Sweeney embarks on his wanton murder rampage after failing to exact revenge upon his wrongdoer.
When he directed the premiere of Sondheim and Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd on Broadway in 1979, director Harold Prince emphasized the saga’s potential for political commentary: his epic-scale production, which played at Chicago’s Arie Crown Theater in 1981, employed a sprawling network of catwalks and girders to evoke the story’s industrial-revolution setting. The “respectable” pie shop run by ruthless businesswoman Lovett served as an allegory for capitalism as economic cannibalism. Todd and Lovett—brilliantly played in the premiere by Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury—came off more as icons than characters.
Michael Weber, director of Porchlight Music Theatre’s intimate new production of Sweeney Todd, dispenses with Prince’s political commentary. “What especially interests me,” says Weber in his program notes, “is that [Todd] may once have been a full-blooded man.” Porchlight’s Todd, played by bald, burly bass David Girolmo, is certainly the most vulnerable incarnation of the character I’ve seen. There’s nothing larger-than-life about this sad, obsessed victim-turned-victimizer; his random slayings seem almost distracted, the reflexive, absentminded gestures of a man operating on emotional autopilot. Rebecca Finnegan’s bold, buxom Lovett is the driving force in this demented duo. Sweeney kills people because he can’t lay his hands on the person he really wants, Turpin; Lovett encourages his actions because it allows her to have Todd all to herself (or so she thinks).
This is abundantly clear in the production’s best number, the first-act finisher “A Little Priest,” in which Lovett enlists Todd in her murder-for-profit scheme by playing a word game with him, inviting him to invent rhymed responses to her suggestions of different people they can kill—priest, poet, locksmith, sailor, etc. As the couple bond into their folie a deux, the rollicking number takes on a monstrous momentum driven by the steady beat of the offstage band’s drum.
Girolmo and Finnegan receive fine support from Edward J. MacLennan as Turpin; Stephanie Stockstill as Todd’s daughter; Brian Acker as her passionate swain; Miles Blim as a hapless urchin whom Lovett takes into her care; Kelli Harrington as a wretched beggar woman with an awful secret; and Kevin Webb, in a marvelous comic-opera turn as a flamboyant Italian barber who competes with Todd in a public display of barberism. The chorus under Doug Peck’s musical direction is superb in what is surely one of the most demanding musicals ever written, full of dissonant, densely voiced chorales as well as rapturous operatic arias and nimble operetta patter songs. But the music’s complexity, as well as the fact that the stage is surrounded by viewers on three sides, demands the performers’ unrelenting commitment to their consonants. Every syllable in Sondheim’s rapid-fire lyrics matters, and it’s all too easy for the words to get swallowed up by a big sound.
Designers Bill Morey (costumes), Jeffrey D. Kmiec (set), and Greg Hofmann and Jess Goings (light) work with director Weber to concoct a wonderfully gloomy atmosphere, intensified by the eerie sound effects created by Jenna Moran. This version of Sweeney Todd is steeped in Dickensian dolefulness, which underscores the pathos in this musical-theater masterpiece.