It doesn’t look like you’re on Fleet Street when you enter Leeds Theater for Sock and Buskin’s production of Sweeney Todd. It looks more like Wall Street during the Occupy movement.
Cast members are kicked out of chairs by policemen as the show begins, and soon we see that the show’s villains are the beneficiaries of the income gap, while its heroes (if you can call them that), reside significantly lower on the income bracket.
In the production, director Curt Columbus, the Artistic Director of Trinity Theater down the hill (so he’s kind of a big deal), breaths new life into the old
Tim Burton Sondheim tale of a man (Sweeney) returning to London to exact revenge on the judge who sentenced him to life imprisonment on false charges. You all know the meat pie part.
The set evokes a city on the brink: cardboard signs — one reads, “WHY?” and another reads “MRS. LOVETT’S PIE SHOP” — graffiti, and an enormous ad for McDonald’s that looks like it was reimagined for a horror movie.
It’s a little unclear when and where the story is located in time and space. Some actors have accents (of varying degrees of ability), others don’t. Act One is distinctly modern, Act two is period. It suggests a timelessness to the story, which, on its surface is about cannibalism, but at its core is about power struggle.
It’s difficult to say which character is most disturbing. The titular Todd, played by the indomitable Patrick Madden ’15, is driven by a distorted conscious. Madden’s wide and manic eyes would give children nightmares, but the knowledge that his cruelty has cause is constantly reasserted.
More evil, it seems, is Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney’s business partner and baker of the infamous pies, whose entrepreneurial spirit is simultaneously hilarious and horrifying. Only someone with Natalie McDonad’s ’15 performance chops could pull it off. The pleasure she achieves by dragging bodies is equalled only in Madden’s delight when whistling before a bloody shave. The song “Try the Priest” was a personal highlight, as it showcased the leading duos’ devilish delight and their electric chemistry.
But it’s Judge Turpin, played by Skylar Fox ’15, who is most unsettling. I wanted so desperately to hate him, but Fox made it impossible. Creepy? Yes. A monster? Absolutely. But so much more was going on, too much to place characters in a simplistic bad/good binary.
And Johanna. Don’t get me started. Katherine Doherty ’16 is doing women everywhere a solid with her no-nonsense understanding of the character of Sweeney’s daughter (and Judge Turpin’s ward). Anthony, Johanna’s lover, played by always welcome Jesse Weil ’16, can sing like an angel, but if you need a gun fired, hand it over to Doherty.
But the scene stealer is without a doubt Elias Spector-Zabusky ’15. His Beadle, Judge Turpin’s loyal cohort, is so deviously delightful, it was impossible to watch anyone else when he was on stage. He is more slimy than Nickelodeon in the late 90s.
The acting talent is through the roof, for sure. But the star of the show is so far upstage left that only half the theater will ever be able to see her. She’s musical director Lizzy Callas ’15 and she’s working hardest of all.
Under her purview, the Sondheim musical became a rock musical, and it suits it perfectly. I should hope so, as she told me herself she and her friends from the New England punk scene have been arranging it since April, hoping to tell as clear a narrative with music as with the script. Even the death sound effect was carefully engineered by her to sound like, “you know, a bunch of bad things.” A scream. An oven. A knife.
At times, the production seemed overly ambitious. The ending, for example, evoked popular images of gun violence without a clear conclusion or connection. And although the Occupy Wall Street aesthetic was occasionally unnecessary and confusing, it can be forgiven, as it is high time that issues of class have found their way to a stage that frequently tackles issues of gender and race.
So go get your tickets, because the Occupy Leeds movement fast approaches, and you don’t want to see it pass you by.