Review: “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”

Paul-Jordan Jansen plays Sweeney Todd. Photo credit: Liz Lauren.

RECOMMENDED

Where: Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora
When: through March 19
Tickets: $44-$59
Phone: 630-896-6666

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

In the last few years, the lovingly restored Paramount Theatre in Aurora has gotten a reputation for Broadway-quality productions under artistic director Jim Corti. I’ve been meaning to go out there, and the opening of Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and Hugh Wheeler’s brilliant “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” seemed like the perfect occasion.

I wasn’t disappointed. Directed and choreographed by Corti, who fully embraces the dark vision and man-eats-man imagery, the musical is on an operatic scale. Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s multilevel set fills the sides of the stage with catwalks and slanting stairs, and in the center is a three-story affair with Todd’s tonsorial parlor on the middle level and an elaborate elevator system that lowers his throat-slit victims, still in the barber chair, to the smoldering oven below, which has accordion-style security gates like you sometimes see in old buildings. Nick Belley and Jesse Klug’s atmospheric lighting brings to life the grittiness of industrialized Victorian London, and also the blood-red smoke of the oven. Theresa Ham’s costumes are equally evocative and help define the characters. Other savvy designers have contributed everything from wigs and ghostly makeup to special effects.

One boon at Paramount is an ample orchestra, and the nineteen musicians conducted by music director Tom Vendafreddo do justice to Sondheim’s fiendishly difficult score, which ranges from soaring melodies to lively patter songs. The only caveat is that, where I was sitting, the sound was a little echo-y, and sometimes the lyrics—many of which are wonderfully witty—were hard to make out.

Based on old “penny dreadfuls” and an adaptation by Christopher Bond, “Sweeney Todd” tells the horrific tale of the title character, born Benjamin Barker, who returns from years of exile and imprisonment on trumped-up charges seeking revenge on Judge Turpin, the corrupt official who sent him away and ruined the life of his beautiful young wife, Lucy, mother of his daughter, Johanna, who is now Turpin’s ward and whom he intends to marry. Paul-Jordan Jansen, a big, bald man and strong bass-baritone, comes across as single-minded, relentless, and increasingly obsessed in his pursuit, so that there’s no room for subtlety, and by the end he’s lost control.

The one who steals the show, though, is Bri Sudia as Mrs. Lovett, maker of “The Worst Pies in London.” A widow determined to marry Todd, who she has loved since his days as barber Barker, she’s even saved his old tools for him and is his main enabler, finding the way to dispose of the bodies, avoid waste, and make a profit. Sudia, who was wonderful in Goodman’s “Wonderful Town,” makes this role completely her own, leavening passion and rather warped compassion with plenty of wit, and showing off the range of her mezzo soprano.

Arguably the only decent character is Anthony Hope (Patrick Rooney), the sailor who saved Todd at sea and is a newbie in London, where he promptly falls in love with Johanna (Cecilia Iole) and spends the rest of the show trying to rescue her from nasty, jealous Judge Turpin (Larry Adams). Rooney is letter-perfect as Hope and has a captivating voice. Director Corti has injected more than the usual amount of playfulness in his courtship of Johanna, and he and Iole have nice chemistry, though her all-out soprano is a bit shrill in her early solo, “Green Finch and Linnet Bird.”

Craig W. Underwood acquits himself well as The Beadle and has a surprisingly sweet voice. Matt Deitchman is amusing as Adolfo Pirelli, the fake Italian rival-barber Todd beats in a competition, and Corti puts a canny twist on why Pirelli loses. Anthony Norman is his abused assistant Tobias Ragg, a simple lad who finds a temporary respite when Mrs. Lovett takes him under her wing. Emily Rohm is especially moving as the alternately brazen and vulnerable Beggar Woman who haunts the proceedings.

Paramount’s “Sweeney Todd” isn’t the best I’ve seen, but it is pretty high on the list, and Sudia’s Mrs. Lovett alone makes it worth the 75-minute (or so) drive from Hyde Park.