Downsizing may be the best thing that’s ever happened to Stephen Sondeheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street. First came the 2004 London-to-New York transfer that had a cast of ten actor-musicians who not only performed the roles but became the show’s onstage orchestra. More true to its source material than that this “high-concept” revival was The Production Company’s brilliant 2009 downscaling (once again to ten actors) in North Hollywood’s 34-seat Chandler Studio Theatre.  To this reviewer, at least, The ProdCo’s “Teeney Todd” felt more like the real thing than its West End-Broadway counterpart, and the same holds true with Cygnet Theatre Company’s superb eleven-actor midsized revival down in Old Town San Diego.

Sean Murray is Sweeney Todd, the former Benjamin Barker, newly returned to London following fifteen years of servitude in Australia and bent on getting revenge on the judge who trumped up charges against him in order to have Barker’s beautiful wife for himself. A chance meeting with Mrs. Nellie Lovett (Deborah Gilmour Smyth), the maker of “the worst pies in London” leads to a devilishly inspired idea—to stuff said pies with human meat. In no time at all, Mrs. Lovett is running the most popular pie shop in London, with the renamed Sweeney Todd using her upstairs room as his tonsorial parlor, where the necks of his hapless customers get sliced open by Sweeney’s deadly straight-edge razor. Meanwhile, Sweeney and a young sailor he met on his ocean journey back from Australia attempt to free the barber’s now grown daughter Johanna from the evil judge’s clutches—and matrimonial plans.

Under the masterful direction of Murray and James Vasquez, Cygnet’s Sweeney Todd abandons the customary unwieldy revolving barber’s shop set for a suitably dark, extremely versatile, terrific multilevel design by Sean Fanning, one that lets the audience’s imagination take the place of burly stagehands moving around that behemoth of a set piece. 


A stage floor-level grating opens up to reveal for the first time the imposing figure of Sweeney, later to allow smoke to rise from Mrs. Lovett’s oven to the streets of London, and at one point so that severed human limbs can be thrown up onstage to deliciously ghastly effect. A second-story bridge proves useful for several scenes, but both Mrs. Lovett’s bakery and Sweeney’s upstairs barber shop are at stage level, Murray and Vasquez’s imaginative staging making it perfectly clear just where we are situated at any time.

As was true with The ProdCo’s production, less than a dozen voices can sound like twice that many when they are heard close up, and since this latest Sweeney is performed on a thrust stage, the audience is often smack dab in the middle of the harmonies as cast members sing from the aisles throughout the theater. Music director extraordinaire Charlie Reuter, having proved his acting chops in Diversionary Theatre’s Bent, wears a much different hat here, conducting the show’s five-member orchestra as well as playing piano and keyboards. The cast’s almost imperceptibly amplified voices are mixed to perfection by sound designer Matt Lescault-Wood.

Ultimately, Sweeney Todd is all about the performances, and here the Cygnet production scores a homer again and again. Murray has everything a great Sweeney requires.  He is not only a powerful actor and singer but also a leading man amply charismatic to inspire passionate devotion from the dotty Mrs. Lovett.  Gilmore Smyth is one of the best Mrs. Lovetts ever, with a great raspy speaking voice, terrific-sounding vocal pipes, and a face capable of expressing myriad expressions. I can’t recall a better, funnier, more imaginatively performed “A Little Priest” than Murray’s and Smyth’s.

In supporting roles, Tom Zohar continues to astound as Tobias. A singer of power and purity with charisma galore, Zohar is a star in the making, his Toby combining sweetness, brashness, and innocence. Jacob Caldtrider is a wonderful Anthony, investing the role with warmth and sincerity, and singing to perfection. (He’s got great hair too!) Ashley Fox Linton brings loveliness and a superb soprano to the role of Johanna. Kurt Norby is funny indeed as the flamboyant Pirelli, Cynthia Marty sings and acts the beggar woman with force and poignancy, Steve Gunderson is a suitably creepy Judge Turpin, and Geno Carr does a great job as Turpin’s accomplice The Beadle.  Sarah Michelle Cuc (Birdseller) and Trevor Hollingsworth (Jonas Fogg) complete the all-around excellent ensemble, most of whom play a variety of supporting roles.

Eric Lotze’s moody lighting, Bonnie L. Durben’s period perfect properties, Shirley Pierson’s splendid costumes, Peter Herman’s wigs and makeup, and George Ye’s fight choreography all deserve applause. Oh, and blood does spurt when throats are slit.

Having seen four different productions of Sweeney Todd over the past two years, I was about to call a moratorium on future Sweeneys. That was until I heard about the Cygnet’s directors and cast. As I had hoped, their work did not disappoint in the slightest.

Whether you are a diehard Sondheim fan, or just someone who wants to see why Sweeney Todd has inspired so many recent productions, Cygnet Theatre Company’s revival is well worth a visit to Old Town San Diego. Parking is free, there are sights galore to be explored around and about the theater, and the show itself is an all-around winner.

Cygnet Theatre Company, 4040 Twiggs St, San Diego.

–Steven Stanley
March 27, 2010
                                                                         Photos: Daren Scott

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