I'm a fan when theatrical shows take risks with established material. I’m also a Stephen Sondheim fan and so I was excited when I heard that Bobby Garcia’s vision for Sondheim’s Tony award winning musical 'Sweeny Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street' is radical as much as it is daring. While I have some questions about some of the creative choices in this revival, I find the production, as a whole: inspired, bold, beautifully sung, resonant to our current times, and grounded by out of this world performances from Lea Salonga and Luigi Quesada.
Originally premiering on Broadway in 1979, ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ is based on a Victorian penny dreadful of the same name and then turned into a play with the same title by Christopher Bond in 1973. Stephen Sondheim (with a book by Hugh Wheeler) then turned it into a musical and it became a huge hit with several revivals and concerts on both sides of the Atlantic (and all over).
It is the story of a barber who returns to London after being exiled for a crime he didn’t commit when a corrupt judge had taken an interest in his wife. He comes back from exile seeking revenge and finds an unlikely ally in the form of Mrs. Lovett, a woman who makes “the worst pies in London,” who has put her bakery right underneath his old barbershop.
Together, they start a killing spree. Sweeney Todd slashes the throats of anyone who sits on his chair that he doesn’t deem fit and Mrs. Lovett bakes them into pies to hide the evidence. Everyday, Sweeney Todd schemes to try and get Judge Turpin in his barbershop for what he did to him and for keeping his daughter Johanna for his own.
The material has always been dark and cynical while being equally whimsical and comic at once. It is gruesome, though, and its driving force has always been Sweeney Todd’s lust for vengeance. Bobby Garcia turns the nightmare of this version of London topsy-turvy as he reimagines London as an apocalyptic junkyard: a two-tiered stage that resembles a commercial parking lot destroyed by a bomb and with cars almost falling into center stage.
While the story is still set in 1846, near the turn of the century in London, Garcia’s post-apocalyptic setting reinforces the underlying theme that this cynicism and darkness and craziness is timeless. It is as much real as ten years from now as it was a hundred years ago. With a story about corrupt politicians and men in power, liars and scam artists, and murderers going free — this may very well be a contemporary story as well.
It’s why this radical departure from the usual revivals (which usually stay true to the depiction of London in the Victorian era) is so resonant and relevant to our current times because it really grounds the material to the atmosphere of our world today: with our farmers starving and murders happening in the very streets . This concept of a barber in a killing spree while his accomplice hides the bodies by turning them into meat pies and selling them for people to eat could come out in our headlines and it wouldn’t be that surprising.
It’s a dog-eat-dog world and by turning it into a post-apocalyptic nightmare, it lends much more weight and credence to the artistic choice. In fact, a large sign post that reads “Fogg’s Asylum,” which is a minor location in one of the scenes becomes a marker that everyone here is mad. There are no good guys and there are no innocents.
It’s why Lea Salonga, who plays a delightfully brazen, crass, and unpolished Mrs. Lovett, and Luigi Quesada, who plays a young boy taken in by Mrs. Lovett as a ward, are phenomenal in this play because they synch so well into the setting and this vision. There’s nothing clean or proper about them. Salonga is a force of nature in her frightening obsession with Mr. Todd and her extremely off-kiltered moral compass. Quesada, on the other hand, can fill up the stage with his bright exuberance that masks a rather mature young man who can see through the fakery. He’s loud and big because he’s broken.
The strongest moment in the play is the gorgeous number “Not While I’m Around” between Salonga and Quesada, where they play all the nuances of that scene — the not-so-subtle accusations of Quesada’s Toby and the deception of Mrs Lovett with attempts to protect Sweeney Todd from discovery, all the while singing a beautiful song about protecting the other from harm.
The others do not always fare so well. Judge Turpin is played by Andrew Fernando and Anthony, a young man who falls in love with Johanna, is played by Gerard Santos, and both seem to struggle with both the British accents and embodying the craziness of the setting. There’s still a sense that they are being too controlled or proper in their performance that doesn’t jive completely with the post-apocalyptic setting. Santos is a marvelous singer, but he’s too precious in his portrayal and it needs the same sort of madness that Quesada and Salonga throw at the role to truly feel a part of this play.
Nyoy Volante, Ima Castro, and Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante are wonderful in their parts and sing their songs wonderfully, but they are never on stage long enough or the blocking doesn’t really give them a chance to punch out of that incredible stage.
And then of course, there is Jett Pangan. He is a powerful presence as Sweeney Todd but while he sings magnificently well and commands attention when he’s on stage, I feel that he is overpowered by Salonga’s Mrs. Lovett. His lust for vengeance over Judge Turpin seems to take a step back from the idea of murdering people to serve as ingredients for Mrs Lovett’s pie shop.
I love it that the show brings out and amplifies the play’s social commentary — a way for which the poorer, working class folk gets to have their comeuppance with the rich who step on them everyday — and this is so powerful and strong in this version but because of the amplification of the killing spree, I feel that Sweeney Todd’s own personal drama and his revenge plot takes second fiddle. There’s more focus and care taken to the songs “A Little Priest,” which ends Act One when the unlikely pair decide to serve dead bodies as meat pies and “God, That’s Good,” which opens the second act with the couple thriving in their new murderous enterprise.
I get it. It’s a madhouse. The world is burning. Everyone is crazy. Corruption is everywhere. This is our world today. I like it. I like it a lot. I just wish there was a way to incorporate Sweeney Todd’s story into this world because in this asylum that is London, Sweeney is the sanest of them all, sane enough to want revenge.
But nevertheless, it’s a strong production with amazing singing from the cast and a bold visual statement about our world today. The orchestra really brings out the gorgeous score of Stephen Sondheim. A standing ovation to the musical director and the orchestra.
Atlantis’ ‘Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ is truly daring in how it tackles a classic musical and I want more of this. I want it crazier and more unpredictable and scarier. It is a marvelous vision of what you can do with a great musical and a courageous artistic vision. Watch it when you can. It’s a wonderful treat.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street runs at the Theater at Solaire, Pasay City until October 27, 2019. Book your tickets via Ticketworld.