Sweeney Todd—The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Director Kent Thompson has pulled out all the stops for what is, to these eyes, the best musical ever produced by the Denver Center Theatre Company. It all begins, of course, with Stephen Sondheim's dramatic and intricate pairing of music and lyrics and the dark, cautionary Victorian tale of blood revenge, adapted by Hugh Wheeler (book), which won the Tony (1979) and Olivier (1980) awards for best musical, among its many accolades.

In a coup that was noted in the New York Times, Emily Tarquin, the Denver Center’s artistic associate and a longtime fan of the local Grammy-nominated indie gypsy punk band, DeVotchKa, suggested the pairing of the band with Sweeney Todd to Thompson, who was immediately intrigued. After the generous approval by Sondeim for the arrangements to be adapted for the band, it was full steam ahead.

Linda Mugleston as Mrs. Lovett and Robert Petkoff as Sweeney Todd
Linda Mugleston as Mrs. Lovett
and Robert Petkoff as Sweeney Todd
Photo: Adams Visual Communications
The result is a sublime mix of edgy, emotionally piercing and heart-filled moments. Broadway veterans, Robert Petkoff (Sweeney Todd) and Linda Mugleston (Mrs. Lovett), dazzle us with their vocal mastery of Sondheim's subtle complexities as well as his wry word play.

The ensemble is filled with delightful character work. Kathleen McCall's Beggar Woman is a classic send up of the (seeming) fool who, at a highly symbolic level, reflects the truth that Sweeney Todd and the audience don't see until it's too late. McCall's vocals shine through, despite the demanding, highly eccentric façade of her character.

Daniel Berryman as Anthony Hope and Samantha Bruce as Johanna
Daniel Berryman as Anthony Hope
and Samantha Bruce as Johanna
Photo: Adams Visual Communications
The comical and poignant love story of Anthony Hope and Johanna is brought to sweet fruition by Daniel Berryman and Samantha Bruce, with lovely melodic solos and duets as well as palpable chemistry.

And what would a classic Victorian melodrama be without a couple of hateful villains, the rapist Judge Turpin (Kevin McGuire) and his loyal lapdog constable, Beadle Bamford (Dwelvan David). Perhaps it was the visceral and unfathomable evil radiated by these miscreants that kept the opening night audience from hissing when they appeared on stage, but the silence and collective breathtaking only enhances the dread that permeates the Stage Theatre when they manifest. As sociopathic a monster as Sweeney Todd becomes, we cannot blame him when those who have destroyed his happiness are transmogrified into meat pies ("God, That's Good!").

(Left to right) Kevin McGuire as Judge Turpin and Dwelvan David as Beadle Bamford
(L to R) Kevin McGuire as Judge Turpin
and Dwelvan David as Beadle Bamford"
Photo: Adams Visual Communications
Innocent or guilty, the victims pile up as Sweeney Todd's paranoia mushrooms, much like that Scottish King and Queen whose enabling regicide opens a bloodbath. Innocents, such as the well-meaning but battered Tobias Ragg (an earnest Kevin Curtis), or his slimey boss, the snake oil salesman, Pirelli (an hilarious Michael Brian Dunn), are dispatched with equal contempt by Sweeney Todd.

The influence of Charles Dickens on this tale is unmistakable: (1) From the Pickwick Papers (1836–37), in which the servant Sam Weller says that a pieman used cats "for beefsteak, veal and kidney, 'cording to the demand,'" and recommends that people should buy pies only "when you know the lady as made it, and is quite sure it ain't kitten"; and/or, (2) As developed in Martin Chuzzlewit (1843–44), published two years before the appearance of Sweeney Todd in The String of Pearls (1846–47), with a character called Tom Pinch who is grateful that his own "evil genius did not lead him into the dens of any of those preparers of cannibalic pastry, who are represented in many country legends as doing a lively retail business in the metropolis."1

James Kronzer's gritty set, Kevin Copenhaver's quirky period costumes, and moody lighting and sound design by Kenton Yeager and Zach Williamson set the stage for this memorable production.

The Denver Center Theatre Company's presentation of Sweeney Todd—The Demon Barber of Fleet Street runs through May 15th. For tickets:

Bob Bows

1 See Sweeney Todd: Alleged Historical Basis

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