Pie Maker, Loony Boy Steal Rightful Spotlight From Sweeney Todd in Chicago Musical

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CHICAGO – While Johnny Depp’s portrayal of the demon barber of Fleet Street in the 2007 film iteration sells you on his fiendish ways, actor and singer David Hess in the musical bobbles more in purgatory rather than living hysterically in hell.

In the musical thriller “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” which has a two-week Chicago engagement now through May 4, 2008, two other supporting characters – the pie-making Mrs. Lovett and the batty Tobias – rise above to take top presence prizes.

The musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
The musical “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”.
Image credit: The Marketing Group

While Hess doesn’t underwhelm and is a sound selection for the lead role, neither does he overwhelm in the ferocious way he needs to. The production with only 10 actors and musicians, which began in 2005 by British director John Doyle as a financial necessity, stayed that personal in future productions as an artistic choice.

“It’s a positive way at looking at smallness and intimacy,” Doyle said about the production. “What we’re all searching for ultimately is the honesty of storytelling. [Central to this production] is the need to make the audience do some of the work. We ask them to use some of their imagination. There’s no barber’s chair, for instance. You can imagine it.”

As well, Sweeney Todd’s victims are taken prey through the reddening of background light and screeching sound – too long and painful to hear, by the way. Indeed, you’re more intimately engaged in each note and calculated decision within the music of legendary composer Stephen Sondheim.

That said, while the 2007 film depiction features a balanced cast with Sweeney Todd as the rightful standout, the musical performance that’s currently touring 20 U.S. cities (ending in June 2008) is decidedly plagued with some weak and undistinguished links. The performance also feels too long.

Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett in the 2007 film as well as Judy Kaye as Mrs. Lovett in the musical both win you over in different ways. They both invade their characters – completely in body and mind – but Kaye in the musical performance adds a refreshing twist of comic relief.

The musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
The cast of the musical “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”.
Image credit: The Marketing Group

The audience craved more comedy, though, whether from her or from the dark and dreary-toned performance in general.

While we’re not handed wit from Edmund Bagnell as Tobias, we’re instead delightfully surprised by his unexpected, standout performance.

Bagnell infuses in his character ornately intense ticks, impeccably overdramatized enunciation (the repeatedly memorable musical line “the demon barber of fleet street,” for example) and is ultimately revealed as one of the stars of the show.

In the concluding ovations, Bagnell won the crowd’s applause – along with Kaye as Mrs. Lovett – even over Hess as story subject Sweeney Todd. Just as so many of the actors were multi-talented musicians, Bagnell is also committed to memory for his uniquely quick-noted violin.

To inject more evil in his wicked ways, Hess should have taken a page from the natural and authentic way Bagnell played the straight-jacketed fanatic.

Alan Rickman was Judge Turpin in the 2007 film whereas Keith Buterbaugh tried in vain to act like him. Buterbaugh had the right idea in his eerie, skin-crawling scene where he fights his sexual feelings toward adopted daughter Johanna, but he ultimately needed more of it to leave a lasting impression.

StarRead more Sweeney Todd coverage.

StarRead more theater reviews by critic Adam Fendelman.

Lauren Molina as Johanna fit the bill of a shackled, fair maiden and is especially remembered for her lines where she reminds the man who’s courting her for marriage – Anthony (played by Benjamin Magnuson) – that she doesn’t even know his name.

Anthony’s recurring song “Johanna” with the romantic lyric “I’ll steal you, Johanna” is the musical’s standout number as it’s sung in beautiful pitch and screams out in such clear key.

After countless musical performances around the world, what became “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” the musical and then the film (both in 1936 and 2007) first began as the story entitled “The String of Pearls” in 1846. It was published in a British penny dreadful and was likely penned by Thomas Prest.

The musical “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” runs through May 4, 2008 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre at 151 W. Randolph St. in Chicago every day except for April 28 at 7:30 or 8 p.m. on most nights. Tickets range in price from $25 to $75.

© 2008 Adam Fendelman, HollywoodChicago.com

HollywoodChicago.com editor-in-chief Adam Fendelman

By ADAM FENDELMAN
Editor-in-Chief
HollywoodChicago.com
adam@hollywoodchicago.com

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