‘Sweeney Todd’: a darkly hilarious take on Sondheim’s murderous musical

May 16, 2023, 12:00 a.m.

On a hot Sunday afternoon, Pigott Theater was packed with an audience eager to watch a gruesome Victorian melodrama about murder and cannibalistic pies. Stanford Light Opera Company’s (SLOCo) performances of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” were all sold out, and rightfully so —  the musical was as hilarious and musically enticing as it was macabre.

“Sweeney Todd” tells the tale of the barber Sweeney Todd (Victor Ragsdale ’19) and his path of bloody vengeance in grimy 19th-century London. Returning to London from a wrongful exile, he and the struggling pie-shop owner, Mrs. Lovett (Sarah Lewis ’24), hatch a grotesque plan to butcher barbershop clientele and use them as filling for pies. This scheme is part of a revenge plot against Judge Turbin (Zhang Bai-Han ’25), a horrible man who raped Todd’s wife and stole Todd’s daughter Johanna (Jin-Hee Lee ’23) to raise as his own. 

The musical took place on a simple set in the intimate Pigott Theater. A staircase led up to a raised platform with a barbershop chair on stage left and a railed balcony on stage right. However, the cast also made use of offstage movement, making the whole production feel even more haunting and intrusive. Todd’s bloodied victims marched out from back exits behind the audience like ghosts, while a final violent encounter between Todd and Lovett took place offstage, right in front of the first row of seats.

Despite the chilling subject matter, the company’s performance balanced heavy topics with levity and camp, exemplified by its leading duo’s dynamics. Ragsdale embodied Todd as brooding and utterly obsessed with vengeance, which was contrasted well by Lewis’ warmer, sassy take on Lovett. Many laughs came out of watching Ragsdale’s deadpan reaction towards Lewis’ romantic advances in “By the Sea” and her teasing of his stoic demeanor.

Another star duo were Lee and Aman Singh ’22, who played the lovers Johanna and Anthony. Lee’s high-pitched melodies blended beautifully with Singh’s resonant voice, especially in “Kiss Me,” when the two planned to elope. Singh’s spry, youthful Anthony was a delight to watch alongside Lee’s melancholic-but-passionate Johanna.

There were moments throughout the show where the lyrics were difficult to understand. This may be in part due to the musical’s patter songs — a challenging fast-tempo type of song that can make clear enunciation tricky. The sound of the orchestra also swallowed singers’ voices at times.

Aside from those occasional difficulties, the cast and orchestra skillfully tackled a host of complex harmonies and rhythms. In the opening number, “Prelude,” the performers managed to swing from eerily discordant melodies to a powerful, collectively chanted refrain. The ensemble sang together with an intense vocal force that fully seized the energy of the smaller theater, especially in songs such as “City on Fire” when the chorus belted amid the chaos of Johanna breaking out of the asylum. Moments like these made the madness of Todd and this world feel ever-present and inescapable.

SLOCo’s rendition of the 1970s musical incorporated many contemporary elements. On Lovett’s table, a hand-crank meat grinder sat alongside red solo cups and Tums. These anachronisms were at times comedic, such as the moment when Lovett’s young helper Toby (Star Doby ’23) busted down with modern dance moves to English parlor songs. 

However, other modern elements felt unnecessary, such as when Judge Turpin randomly looked into a glowing iPad while lustfully singing for his adopted daughter in “Johanna — Mea Culpa,” or when Toby presented an elixir to a crowd with phones and selfie lights. These seemed like half-hearted attempts to connect the play to modern sensibilities, which felt out of place amid old-fashioned topics and costumes.

Altogether, SLOCo managed to craft a well-executed version of “Sweeney Todd” that was genuinely fun. Sure, the play itself ends quite brutally (spoiler alert), with the young Toby killing Todd with his own blade — but the journey to that end was one of dark comedy, brilliant musical performances and dreadfully tasty pies. What’s not to love?

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.

Kristofer Nino is a writer for the Arts & Life section. contact arts 'at' stanforddaily.com

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