Sweeney Todd, Palm Beach Dramaworks’ present production
Shane R. Tanner playing a vengeful barber in "Sweeney Todd", a production at Palm Beach Dramaworks this summer. (Photo credit: Cliff Burgess)

Sweeney Todd, Palm Beach Dramaworks’ present production, is as much a horror tale as a musical, although its producing artistic director, William Hayes likes to call it “a love story.” It is, actually, but its effects are harsh, expressing a hopeless view of human nature. It is also a masterpiece, though the content of the story is evil and twisted.

Based on the book written by Hugh Wheeler, and music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, best known for his production of West Side Story, Sweeney Todd is a nightmarish tale based in London in the industrial revolution era. Sondheim is notorious for threading his musical epics with harsh reality or extreme conflicts, mixed with boisterous comedy that wrings some grim reaction from the story’s main characters. Reportedly, the play seemed less funny in 1979, in roles originated on Broadway by Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury.

Like almost every other fictional serial killer story—the honest man’s suffering is simply ignored—Sweeny Todd stars as a sympathetic character. Once a happy husband and father, until his beloved Johanna (Jennifer Molly Bell) becomes the object of obsession of an evil judge (Michael Mackenzie) who accuses Sweeney of a crime he did not commit and sends him to Australia to do hard labor, which he escapes from it. He returns to London, and sets up shop, cutting more than just hair. Upon his return, he learns that his wife Johanna has committed suicide and his daughter Lucy, now a teenager, has been retained by the same judge who wronged him.

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With the help of Mrs. Lovett, (Ruthie Stephens) the pie baker, Sweeney sets up shop over the bakery, the location of his former shop, where he finds his old straight razors “my friends” under the floorboards. In a masterful plan concocted by both Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett, his new enthusiastic business partner, they proceed to ambush the judge. But the scheme requires more than just bravery and brains, but rather the deaths of a few walk-ins. Mrs. Lovett makes a profit by turning the bodies of the victims into delicious meat pies. What a travesty! What a crime! And how incredibly funny as the perverse jokes are the basis of this masterful tale told in song-and-dance.

Sweeney Todd, Palm Beach Dramaworks’ present production
Ruthie Stephens in ‘Sweeney Todd’ (Photo credit: Cliff Burgess)

By the end of the first act, I was left with this annoying question circling in my head over the context of the play. How do we view a mass murderer today? How do we view Sweeney in 2017 as supposed to 1979 when it was first introduced to the stage? “For that, from the looks of it, we had to look at it in a different way and not set it necessarily in the industrial revolution, but in a science fiction modern look,” explained Director Clive Cholerton, whose all-time favorite musical is Sweeney Todd, even though he’s not the kind of person who cares for violent shows, whether on stage, on screen or on TV.  “The resonance of the show is done in such a way that is nonviolent, and still shows the only way that the victim can rectify the wrong of the oppressor,” said Cholerton. He referred to Michael Amico’s scene design as modern and subtle, not at all sinister like in the original stage production, and definitely not as dark and gory as film director Tim Burton’s 2007 film, starting Johnny Depp. Burton’s take portrayed London as a smoky oil slick of a city and Sweeney as a savage.

In PBD’s production, Sweeney is portrayed as a very human person who really wants to get back with his family but is pushed to the point where he disintegrates into a nightmarish abyss that spirals into madness. There may be a suggestion of a happy ending near the end of the show, but what you see is Sweeney’s darkest moment, as he meets the grave. What you hear is a master musical score sung by some powerhouses. The singing voice of Shane Tanner (Sweeney Todd) in particular is amazingly forceful, transmitting the violence of Mr. Sondheim’s music and lyrics perfectly.

“They’ll never be missed,” sings Mrs. Lovett. And Sweeney’s point of view is a tad more sinister. “They all deserve to die,” he says with great disdain, as he cleans his razor and looks over the rooftops of the city at night. Cholerton depicts those deaths with a jarring noise and a red light that’s effectively bright. Some of the best numbers, like “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” sung by the Ensemble at the end moves with a furious crescendo toward its blackest conclusion.

I confess that I was a little startled that I enjoyed seeing this production, since it’s been a long time since I’ve watched a horror show, whether onscreen or onstage. The power of Sweeney Todd did unsettle me, pushing me to think: could something so grotesque happen in real life? 

Brilliantly performed, this masterful play should not be missed. Sweeney Todd runs through August 6, at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis Street. For ticket information, call 561-514-4042 or visit palmbeachdramaworks.org.

Sweeney Todd, Palm Beach Dramaworks’ production, is a horror tale, a musical, a love story expressing a hopeless view of human nature.