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October 24, 2013

‘Sweeney Todd’ bloody beautiful

By Samah Assad

Old legends can make even the strongest of naysayers believe in their eerie tales. Great Lakes Theatre’s rendition of the musical thriller “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” does this seamlessly, making you not only attend the tale but immerse yourself in its twisted beauty.

Set in 19th century London, Sweeney Todd (Tom Ford) seeks revenge on a judge (Darren Mathias) who unjustly wronged him and his family. Sweeney teams up with pie maker Mrs. Lovett (Sara M. Bruner) and opens a barbershop where they slit customers’ throats and bake them into meat pies, as they wait for the judge to make an appointment for the closest shave he’s ever had.

The show opens with a shrieking song that gets the audience’s immediate attention by asking us – no, telling us – to attend the tale of Sweeney Todd. The murderer himself points his razor blade at the audience and asks, “Does anyone want a shave?” You know you are fully immersed in this world when you try, but fail, to avoid eye contact. This is all part of director Victoria Bussert’s plan to make this musical an all-out assault on the audience so that it is a most moving and memorable theatrical experience. She succeeds.

Whether he’s silent or singing, you can feel Todd’s angst just from the pain in Ford’s eyes. Bruner, as Lovett, serves up a contagious cackle and a blend of morbid and sexual humor that offsets Sweeney’s darkest moments. All this is complemented by music director Matthew Webb and his concealed eight-piece orchestra, which brings composer Stephen Sondheim’s eerie, award-winning score to life. Fanciful trumpets and pounding drums clash to mirror the killer’s turbulent life. The audience experiences pain and happiness simultaneously when Sweeney slices someone’s neck on one end of the stage and his friend Anthony Hope (Zach Adkins) professes his love for Sweeney’s daughter Johanna (Clare Howes Eisentrout) on the other. It’s amazing how every song helps tell a character’s unique story.

All of this occurs while blood realistically, and rather dramatically, spurts out of the necks of Sweeney’s victims. But don’t let the murderous themes or the blood drive you away. Although this play tells the twisted tale of vicious revenge, the power of love shines through the darkness and offers just enough hope to appeal to even the most squeamish of patrons.

So attend the tale of Sweeney Todd, which runs through Nov. 2 at the Hanna Theatre in PlayhouseSquare. You’ll be glad you did.