By Stacy Santini
To experience “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” the musical currently running at Theater Three in Port Jefferson, is to once again enter the clever imagination of Creative Director Jeff Sanzel. It is bold, it is daring, it is courageous and it is uncomfortable, as it should be. With productions such as “Les Misérables” and “Oliver” in his repertoire, Sanzel is no stranger to challenging and enormous projects, and Sweeney Todd is no exception. He brings the darkness of this satire to light and as we watch, as grievous as the subject matter may be, we are entertained.
Although there have been numerous publications attempting to give honesty to the story with references to actual people, Sweeney Todd is an urban legend. The story is based on a vengeful London Fleet Street Barber in 1785 who slits the throats of his customers. Mrs. Lovett is his pie-making accomplice, and together they join forces to make mincemeat out of his victims, literally. The pies become all the rage and cannibalism commonplace to Lovett’s naïve patrons. Opening at New York’s Uris Theater in 1979, the musical has consistently won numerous Tonys, including Angela Lansbury for Best Actress and Len Cariou for Best Actor. The infamous Stephen Sondheim is responsible for the award-winning score.
As is always the case with Theater Three, the performances are astonishing, but there were several other stars in the room the evening of the premier that were not on stage. This production is visual perfection. From the set to the lighting to sound to the choreography, the team Sanzel assembled for this production created a true optic masterpiece. Scenic Designer, Randall Parsons; Lighting Designer, Robert W. Henderson Jr.; Sound Designer, Peter Casdia and Choreographer, Sari Feldman took this show to soaring heights. Whether it was the actors running up and falling down in the aisles or witnessing victims slide off the barber chair and down into morbid eternity, the viewers were captivated by the imagery.
The costumes, as created by Ronald Green III, are sublime. Green’s vision of black and gray hues with pops of white serves the energy of this production well. They were a marvel to look at. The haunting score is handled well by the orchestra and under the musical direction of Jack Kohl, complements the shocking scenes on stage.
There is no actor in the Theater Three family of thespians more suited for the role of Sweeney Todd than Steve McCoy. His initial appearance on stage is chilling and the connection to the character Hannibal Lector in the movie “The Silence of the Lambs” is uncanny. Right before our eyes, McCoy creates a monster on stage, a singing, maniacal murdering monster with a heart. Only McCoy can do that and he does.
Outside of McCoy, Suzanne Mason as Mrs. Lovett commands our attention every moment she is on stage, which is often. Mason plays this unsavory character with such likability that we completely forget that she is not only a murderer’s accomplice, but his manipulative business partner as well. She is charming almost to a fault, from her brilliant cockney accent to her empathetic gestures to her completely sociopathic consciousness, we are enthralled with her. Once again, Sanzel’s intuition when it comes to selecting actors is right on point.
Amanda Geraci plays Johanna, reinforcing that her superior vocal range can take on any role she assumes. Her ethereal voice is a welcome distraction to the comedic yet gloomy story line. Bryan Elsesser as her paramour, Anthony Hope, is delightful; his version of the song “Johanna” is standing ovation-worthy. John Hudson as the Baz Luhrman-type character, Italian Barber Pirelli, is also a surprise and perfectly apprehended. Robert Butterley gives new meaning to word “chauvinist,” as he plays the very dislikable Judge Turpin and, as always, veteran Linda May is the ultimate forlorn Beggar Woman. Honorable mention must be made of Andrew Gasparini as simpleton Tobias who does more than justice to this sympathy-invoking role.
Sweeney Todd might not be considered a musical for everyone, the subject matter coarse and offensive, but the irony is that, that is exactly the reason to see it. When a theater embraces a musical like Sweeney Todd in such a manner that it is enjoyable and appealing, purchasing a ticket should be instinctive. The value lies not so much in the story line, but in the performances and depiction of complex characters, which is done so well here.
There is an old saying that if you hang around the barber shop long enough, you will eventually get your haircut, in this case — your throat slit. Not sure you want to hang around Sweeney Todd too long, but it is sure worth a visit.
Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson will present “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” through Oct. 24. Tickets range from $15 to $30. For more information, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.