The classic Sondheim musical Sweeney Todd takes to the stage at Toronto’s Al Green Theatre
Alexander Showcase Theatre’s production of Sweeney Todd now playing at the Al Green Theatre is a fresh, funny take on Steven Sondheim’s classic musical about a revenge-seeking, murderous barber and his pie-making neighbour. While some of the aspects of this musical are definitely not for the squeamish or the faint of heart, this production emphasizes the musical’s comedic aspects, making it a laugh-out-loud fun night at the theatre.
The basic premise of the musical is fairly typical of a Victorian-style drama. Fifteen years before the events in the play, Sweeney Todd was falsely accused of a crime and sent to prison in Australia by Judge Turpin because Turpin and his friend the Beadle Bamford wanted to seduce Sweeney’s wife. Sweeney then returns to London, after being rescued by the naïve sailor Anthony, only to find out from his old neighbor — the pie maker Mrs. Lovett — that his wife poisoned herself and that Turpin has taken Sweeney’s daughter Johanna as his ward. Sweeney vows to take revenge on Turpin and Bamford. Meanwhile, Anthony meets the grown up Johanna and immediately falls in love with her. These two plots become more complicated and intermingle leading to the play’s tragic end.
Of the eight productions of Sweeney Todd that I’ve seen, the Alexander Showcase Theatre production takes itself the least seriously, and that decision works well for me as it makes the play more fun. The way that director Vincenzo Sestito staged the song “Kiss Me”, where the young lovers Anthony (Joshua Wales) and Johanna (the lovely Alexandra Reed) plan Johanna’s escape from her guardian’s home, used the broad, self-referential humour in Sondheim’s lyrics to point out the absurdity of how quickly they’ve fallen in love. My guest particularly enjoyed that Johanna and Anthony were played like horny teenagers making out for the first time in this number, and I agree with her that this is a totally hilarious choice that made the characters feel more realistic.
Patrick Brown (Sweeney Todd) and Sara Stahmer (Mrs. Lovett) invoke the same hilarious irreverence in their interpretations of their characters. Their rendition of “A Little Priest” is played a little bit goofy, like a spirited Abbot and Costello style comedy bit. A sequence in the song where the director has the two pretend to spar with swords as they spar with words earned big laughs. Stahmer’s “By the Sea” was another highlight of the night as Stahmer and Brown played to the absurd humour in the lyrics.
My only real complaints about this production are that the ensemble was probably a little too big for the amount of space on the stage and that doing some of the set changes in a semi-blackout was a little distracting. During the play’s climax there was a little bit of a traffic jam trying to get the ensemble off the stage, which might have been fixed by putting fewer bodies on the stage at that time. As for the set changes, it might have been less distracting to do them all out in the open rather than in semi-darkness so that the stagehands could execute them more smoothly.
Despite these minor setbacks, I found that Sestito’s staging was often very clever. I found his eye for detail very apparent in his staging of “God, That’s Good” where the audience discovers Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett’s operation in action for the first time. His staging of the scene in Fogg’s Asylum by contrast was appropriately creepy, as was the staging of the final scene in Mrs. Lovett’s bake house.
Whether you’re a huge Sondheim fan familiar with Sweeney Todd like I am or you’re new to his modern masterpiece, you won’t be disappointed with the Alexander Showcase Theatre production. I’d actually really recommend it for anyone unfamiliar with the play or who might be intimidated by the seriousness of Sondheim’s work because their production really, truly is a good time.
- Sweeney Todd is playing until May 10 at the Al Green Theatre (750 Spadina Avenue)
- Shows run Wednesday to Saturday at 7:30pm, with a matinee on Sundays at 2pm
- Ticket are $32, with a student/senior ticket priced at $27 and are available online, or through the box office at 416-324-1259
Photo of Patrick Brown and Sara Stahmer by John Meadows.