"SWEENEY TODD: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," through Nov. 10, Pioneer Theatre Company, 300 S. 1400 East (801-581-6961 or pioneertheatre.org); running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (one intermission)
SALT LAKE CITY — “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is not a play about nice people. There are a couple of folks in Stephen Sondheim's 1979 Tony winner with good hearts — the simple, sweet-voiced Toby Ragg, Shakespeare’s fool who sees what others do not, and Anthony Hope, an earnest sailor who falls for the wrong girl — but this play is not about them.
Rather, it's about the titular Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett, one of musical theater's great couples. If it wasn't for the killings, it would almost be a love story.
Todd, the demon barber himself, returns to London for bloody revenge, pining for his wronged wife Lucy, but Mrs. Lovett gets it right when she sings, “Could that thing have cared for you like me?” No, whatever Todd may think, his match is in the cheerful and chatty Mrs. Lovett. Unlike him, she’s not bloodthirsty — just opportunistic — and that she would extend her big-hearted ways to a grim murderer should have kept him out of trouble. But alas.
Pioneer Theatre Company’s adaptation of Sondheim's musical, running through Nov. 10, is obviously timed for Halloween, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more wonderfully macabre night out in the area. They’ve done the musical justice and given it all the trappings: gobs of smoky London atmosphere, gorgeous leads and a talented ensemble dressed (beautifully by costume designer Brenda Van der Wiel) in smog-colored Victorian garb to lead the audience through the horrible tale.
And it is a truly horrible tale, one the ensemble laid out in Saturday evening’s opening number, “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.” Benjamin Barker, the London barber sentenced to 15 years hard labor for the crime of being married to a pretty wife, has returned to kill Judge Turpin — the man who destroyed his life and family. Turpin is also the guardian of Barker’s, now Sweeney Todd’s, daughter Johanna.
But of course, things get far more gruesome than simple revenge by the time the musical is over, and this cast handily dispenses the highs and lows of Sondheim’s grisly classic.
The audience took note when Todd, played by Kevin Earley, first appeared on stage with his pale skin and odd eye. Earley has that magical thing called stage presence, and at times, it was enough to see him caressing his shaving blade to get a feel for Todd’s unhinged, revenge-possessed mind.
But luckily, he was more than a presence. Earley soon showed off his rich baritone, a sonorous voice just right for a deep-feeling man, especially noticeable when he sang “Epiphany” and “Pretty Women” with Turpin, played here with an elegant arrogance by Joe Dellger. And while Earley portrayed Todd as impatient and single-minded, desperate for the chance to slit Turpin’s (or anyone who might be in his way) throat, his slightly mocking smile emphasized Sondheim’s witty lyrics, packed full with dark, winking humor.
The pie-making Mrs. Lovett, Todd's partner in crime, got the night’s biggest laughs, thanks to Anne Tolpegin's comedic timing and gift for physical comedy. Her strong contralto blended beautifully with Earley's voice, and although they sang about killing people off and baking them into pies, they sounded so good it didn't much matter.
Their story unfolded against scenic designer George Maxwell's massive, rusted cogwheels, an oversized reminder that this story sits at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Lighting designer Paul Miller kept pace with Sondheim's musical moods, at times bathing the actors in haunting shadow and other times in blood red. And the supporting cast also added to this overall excellent production, with Brigham Young University grad DeLaney Westfall's high soprano and wide-eyed innocence making it easy for the audience to understand how Jonathan Shew's charming Anthony Hope could fall in love with her so immediately.Comment on this story
But nice as they were, it was the nasty characters who kept us watching until the final, brutal end. "Sweeney Todd" is the stuff of the old penny dreadfuls, sensational and overwrought, and its genius is that somehow, those heightened emotions still feel relevant.
And besides, only a man with a blade and a woman with a pie could convince us that revenge is not a dish best served cold, but rather piping hot with a mug of cider.
Content advisory: According to PTC, its production of "Sweeney Todd" would be rated PG-13 for mild gore, language and sexual innuendo. The production is not recommended for children under 10 and "older children should attend at a parent’s discretion," according to its website.