Arts & Culture

‘Sweeney Todd’ occupies Wall Street

Sock and Buskin’s take on the classic play evokes frustrations of living in poverty amidst wealth

By
Staff Writer
Friday, September 26, 2014

Modern-day reinventions frequently come across as gimmicky in theater and film. Too often, they serve as better marketing than art — or, perhaps more dangerously, they can come from the monomaniacal will of a rogue director, so concerned with his or her creative impulses that the reinvention ends up a gutted version of the original work. 

But in the rare circumstances that it does work — and Sock and Buskin’s rendition of “Sweeney Todd” is one of the few — it manages to introduce a dimension ignored in the first reading or an interpretation that becomes relevant only years after the work’s publication. “Sweeney Todd,” directed by Curt Columbus, artistic director at the Trinity Repertory Company, falls into both of these categories. It wittily and eerily recreates the gory melodrama, originally set in Victorian London, in a tale of greed and class division on a gritty, Occupy-Wall-Street-esque set.

With the wonderfully bizarre backdrop of a McDonald’s billboard covered in graffiti, the set is filled with pitched-up tents, cardboard signs and sleeping bags. Lizzy Callas ’15 directs the score with a punk tinge, using a live rock band instead of full orchestration. And the modern costume design establishes the connection between contemporary wealth inequality and the original Victorian setting.

It’s a story that should be familiar. A barber (played by Patrick Madden ’15) returns to London after years of exile, wrongfully sentenced by the corrupt Judge Turpin (Skylar Fox ’15). Arriving home under the name Sweeney Todd, he learns from Mrs. Lovett (Natalie McDonald ’15), his downstairs neighbor and a failing vendor of meat pies, that his wife committed suicide after Turpin raped her and took Todd’s daughter Johanna (Katherine Doherty ’16) as his ward. Planning his revenge on the Judge and his Beadle (Elias Spector-Zabusky ’15), who helped Turpin execute the deed, Todd restarts his barber business at the behest of Mrs. Lovett. But this quickly takes on a morbid twist: Todd murders his customers and delivers them to be baked into Mrs. Lovett’s pies.  Dark, twisted humor ensues. A side-story, far less fun than the murder plot, involves Todd’s young sailor friend Anthony Hope (Jesse Weil ’15) falling in love and trying to rescue Johanna from the tyrannical and lascivious Turpin.

Madden does a fine job in the titular role. He has a strong voice and the occasional glimmer of well-practiced malice, but he lacks some of the true madness that the role normally requires. Madden plays Todd as a broken and melancholic man, not one driven to insanity. Frankly, Madden seems all too sane.

Part of this may be a conscious choice: In a recasting of the musical along modern political terms, Sweeney Todd becomes the everyman pushed to brutality by an unjust system, not the madman he traditionally has been. Columbus has transformed Sweeney Todd from a vengeful antihero into a counter-hegemonic revolutionary. It makes sense that Madden’s portrayal would follow suit.

The real glimpses of morbidity come from McDonald as Mrs. Lovett. She plays a far less conflicted role, and she fully embraces her character’s strange mixture of the macabre and the comic, the grotesque and the ribald. It’s a brilliant portrayal that captures a true, gleeful delight in all things illicit. A clever second-act stage adjustment, shifting the McDonald’s logo for that of Mrs. Lovett’s Meat Pies, furthers her whole-hearted affirmation of her world’s brutal social system, as well as raises some interesting, if heavy-handed, metaphors of corporate cannibalism.

Fox as Judge Turpin and Spector-Zabusky as his Beadle are two other standouts in a superb cast. In a musical about murder and cannibalism, Fox manages to make Turpin seem like the only one who is truly sinister.  And Spector-Zabusky is perfectly unctuous in his role and despicably servile throughout his time onstage.

Stephen Sondheim premiered “Sweeney Todd” in 1979 in New York, just four years after the city hovered on the verge of bankruptcy and two years after the massive looting that accompanied a citywide blackout. He carried this spirit of grittiness and poverty to “Sweeney Todd,” which, while caught up in the gothic pageantry of 19th-century London, is ultimately about the cruel paradoxes of living on the margins of a vast and wealthy empire. In bringing the musical to the world of Occupy Wall Street, Columbus reinstates some of that original feeling.

“Sweeney Todd” runs Thursday through Sunday until Oct. 5 in Leeds Theater. Thursday through Saturday performances start at 8 p.m., and Sunday matinees begin at 3 p.m.

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