Book by Hugh Wheeler. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Directed by Ryan Mooney. Presented by Fighting Chance Productions. At the Jericho Arts Centre on Thursday, October 14. Continues until October 30
Bloody good. Sweeney Todd is the big musical you’ll want to see this season.
It’s about revenge. Benjamin Barker was a naive barber when the corrupt Judge Turpin sent him off to Australia on trumped-up charges so that Turpin could seduce—some might say rape—Barker’s wife. Fifteen years later, Barker returns to London, changes his name to Sweeney Todd, and aims his glistening razor at Turpin and other hypocrites. As the bodies start to pile up, Todd and his cohort Mrs. Lovett hit upon an ingenious method of disposal: they’ll bake them into meat pies and sell them.
Lovett tells Todd that, after his wife killed herself, Turpin raised Todd’s daughter Johanna as his ward. As the conventions of musical theatre would have it, Todd’s young sailor friend, Anthony, falls in love with Johanna. But Turpin has creepy sexual designs of his own.
Stephen Sondheim’s songs are darkly savoury. In “A Little Priest”, Todd and Lovett get giddy imagining the contents of their pies: “Here’s the politician, so oily/It’s served with a doily.” Musically, these numbers are devilishly difficult to perform; full of tricky intervals and demanding rhythms, some require an almost operatic range. The characters who deliver this material positively glisten with eccentricity.
It’s amazing that director Ryan Mooney has been able to cast this non-Equity production so successfully. Alex McMorran hurls himself into the title role with bone-chilling fury and pitch-black wit. His fearlessness is thrilling. Cathy Wilmot swaggers through the role of Mrs. Lovett, having the time of her life as she spins the material to hilarious heights. These two share “A Little Priest”, which is the Act 1 closer, and they pull it off with such panache that they had the opening-night audience howling its approval.
Young Chris Harvey, who plays Anthony, is still a little hesitant as an actor, but has the voice of an angel. When that voice combines with the liquid soprano of Krista Gibbard (Johanna), in duets such as “Kiss Me”, the results are downright transporting.
Arne Larsen (Judge Turpin) sounds strangely Canadian and his acting is a bit over the top. Still, he gives ’er. Not everybody in the cast is always up to the musical demands of the material, and there are balance problems, so it’s sometimes hard to hear the singers. But Vashti Fairbairn directs a precise seven-piece band, and, overall, this mounting is a musical triumph for such a small company.
On a budget so tiny that none of the actors is getting paid, Fighting Chance Productions also manages to mount a visually satisfying version of a show that’s usually associated with lavish trappings. Set designer Amanda Larder has built two huge set pieces out of scaffolding and clad them in stylishly hand-painted canvas. And costumer Banafsheh Tabrizi provides clothing that’s eclectic in period but dramatically coherent in its black-and-red palette.
Once again, Fighting Chance has proven itself to be the little company that can.