Perhaps like no other recent work for the musical stage, Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is so eminently adaptable and bendable as theater that it practically cries out for fresh treatments. In the case of the Clarence Brown Theatre’s current staging of the musical, a collaboration with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, the production practically bursts out of the available width of the Clarence Brown Theatre stage, with the onstage orchestra and the dramatic space being afforded equal theatrical footing. “Collaboration,” though, is probably too weak a description for what director Calvin MacLean’s and KSO music director Lucas Richman’s have managed to accomplish in creating this production; “brilliantly integrated” is better.
The 1979 Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler musical is drawn from a 1973 adaptation by Christopher Bond of some 1840s serialized London magazine stories and a simultaneously adapted melodrama by George Dibdin Pitt. MacLean and designer Kevin Depinet have retained subtle hints of Victorian flavor in their set, but have mixed in suggestions of Dickensian industrial heaviness and meat-market modernity using plastic slats as scrim/projection surfaces—all the while managing to fit in the 38 member orchestra in a cozy location upstage center.
Despite the intriguing visual impact of the production and MacLean’s inventive use of the space, it is the brilliance of the Sondheim score and the musical performances that shine through and drive this production. Richman certainly deserves kudos for keeping the musical timing tight. The juxtaposition of sweet and sour pushes and tugs on the audience; the old-time verse-driven structure of “A Little Priest” (with a modern melodic twist) serves as comedy relief following Todd’s dive into the depths of blackness with his “Epiphany.” From intricate and difficult meter-changing rhythm to dramatic dissonance to sophisticated lyricism, Sweeney Todd is probably as close to opera as one ever finds on the musical stage.
MacLean and Richman have also managed to cast the production with such a strong mixture of singing actors and acting singers that the differentiations became irrelevant. Dale Dickey was a masterful Mrs. Lovett, painting the character with bold strokes of voice acrobatics and delightfully shaded physical nuances tinged with loneliness and a bit of lust. She is a strong widow just holding on in a thankless situation, but all too willing to sacrifice personal ethics for survival.
Jeff Austin was a handsome (perhaps too handsome) Sweeney, with a lustrous voice to match the strength of resolve and the depth of his revenge, leaving no doubt that he could be the amorous target of Mrs. Lovett. However, try as I would, I failed to find the odd descriptions and mannerisms of Sweeney Todd (“His skin was pale and his eye was odd”) that Sondheim describes in the prologue in Austin’s character—and that one might have seen in other Sweeneys.
Alex Ward, as the love-bitten sailor Anthony Hope, and Natalee Louise McReynolds, as Sweeney’s daughter, Johanna, were both vocally strong and dramatically appealing, not to mention completely attractive as the young lovers. Cody Boling sang an absolutely gorgeous Beadle Bamford, although dramatically I was never convinced he had a corrupt or evil bone in his body. On the other hand, David Kortemeier clearly knew the hypocritical subtleties of the evil of Judge Turpin’s perversity, and delivered them deliciously. I must admit that I found the character of Tobias (Micah-Shane Brewer) a bit ambiguous—was he merely youthful and naive, or was he mentally disabled? No one seemed to be sure.
A real standout was tenor Boris Van Druff, who brought a fabulous voice to the role of the charlatan barber, Pirelli—the first of many to be dispatched by Sweeney, stuffed into a trunk, only to be turned into a savory meat pie by Mrs. Lovett. Sacha Baron Cohen’s film version of Pirelli had been a comic favorite; now I’ll have to consider another.
Sound design has advanced so far in the theater that productions like Sweeney Todd, where diction is key, are virtually impossible without it. Joe Payne’s voice reinforcement and the subtle environmental effects, were clean, natural, and transparent.