Where: Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre at No Exit Cafe, 6970 N. Glenwood Ave.
When: through May 20
Tickets: $39-$44 ($25 dinner featuring “deconstructed meat pie” optional)
By ANNE SPISELMAN
As anyone who has seen “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Drury Lane Theatre, the Paramount Theatre in Aurora, or on a national tour knows, Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s dark musical is a big show with a large cast, a devilishly complicated score, and daunting technical demands. So when I heard that Theo Ubique had chosen it as their last full production in the tiny No Exit Cafe before moving a few blocks north to Howard Street in Evanston, I was amazed at Artistic Director Fred Anzevino’s hubris and convinced they could never pull it off.
Boy, was I wrong. The grandiose scaffolded London setting, imposing barber chair that dumps the title character’s victims, Mrs. Lovett’s hellish bakehouse, and other staging elements may be missing, but the intimacy of the 55-seat cafe more than compensates. Director Anzevino uses every inch of the space, even having the real kitchen double as Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop, so the performers in their ghastly-ghostly makeup and nineteenth century-ish costumes move through, around, and behind the audience, sometimes interacting with us. If James Kolditz’s lighting using minimal equipment tends towards darkness (and a couple of missed cues), it’s appropriately atmospheric. And when the dead rise at the end and reprise “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” the message that the next serial killer may be among us takes on chilling meaning.
The same song opens the penny dreadful tale of barber Benjamin Barker, who escapes imprisonment in Australia on trumped-up charges and returns to London seeking revenge, and the minute Simeon Tsanev on violin, Jay Gummert on reeds, Rachel Schuldt on cello, and music director Jeremy Ramey on piano start playing, we know we’re in good hands. In fact, they often sound like a full orchestra.
The thirteen-member ensemble is equally impressive, starting with opera singer Philip Torre as a brilliant Sweeney Todd. Brooding from the start, with a compelling deep voice, he becomes increasingly distracted, distraught, and driven as he learns the full extent of the wrongs done him by Judge Turpin (John B. Leen), who raped his beloved wife Lucy, causing her to drink poison, and raised his infant daughter, Johanna (Cecilia Iole), as his ward but is now about to marry her. At the same time, Torre lets us see Todd’s lingering humanity in his gratitude to Anthony (Nathan Carroll), who rescued him at sea and falls in love with Johanna not knowing who she is, and in his reactions to Mrs. Lovett, which include admiration for her pragmatism in figuring out what to do with his victims (“A Little Priest”), tolerance for her fantasies (“By the Sea”), and disgust at her duplicity.
The chemistry between Torre and Jacquelyne Jones’ Mrs. Lovett is palpable, and the practical pie shop proprietress is played less for laughs than often is the case. She subtly makes us understand the frustration of a woman who does everything for love of a man who doesn’t love her back, try as she will to make him. Even her seemingly maternal affection for young Toby (Frankie Leo Bennett), boastful barber Pirelli’s (Ryan Armstrong) assistant left jobless by his master’s sudden disappearance, stems from a desire to protect Todd more than concern for the boy.
While the love story between Johanna and Anthony has always struck me as improbable and more of a plot convenience than anything else, Iole and Carroll do their best to bring it to life. Leen is more creepy than intimidating as the Judge, especially in his scene of self-flagellation, and Kevin Webb is suitably sycophantic as his sidekick Beadle. Megan Elk stands out as the crazy Beggar Woman who accosts and haunts the others, sounding the alarm that something is terribly wrong.
I could carp that some moments aren’t as effective as they could be, and yes, the prop designer could have come up with a better barber chair than a backless seat that looks like it should be ergonomic, but the truth is I was blown away by the Brechtian power of Theo Ubique’s “Sweeney Todd.” It is a show I feel privileged to have seen. Don’t miss it.