Theater Review:
‘Sweeney Todd’ still thrills
Posted March 28, 2008

Who could have predicted that a show about a murderous barber who disposes of his victims by baking them into meat pies would become a hit?

Oh, and it’s a musical.

Most writers could not have dreamed up this dark masterpiece, but Steven Sondheim was able to fashion this world of killing and mayhem in 1979 with “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”

The show has had numerous revivals, including its current production at the Ahmanson Theater in downtown Los Angeles.

The story of Sweeney Todd was brought to the big screen last year with Tim Burton’s interpretation and starred Johnny Depp as the barber.

The movie was impressive, but nothing can compare to seeing the production in live theater. The set is incredible and the performances are electrifying.

The revival of the musical in its current manifestation occurred several years ago on Broadway in which the entire cast performs an instrument.

This lends an urgent note to the chilling music. The cast members never leave the stage, creating a tight-knit group that lends itself to the story of events that transpired on one haunting street in London.

Veteran actor David Hess, who also performed the role on Broadway, plays Todd with a disturbing perseverance.

The barber was unjustly sentenced to a time in prison after a judge named Turpin decided he was in love with Todd’s wife. After spending 15 years away from London, the production opens on Todd returning to his home to exact revenge.

He goes on a killing spree, marked in the play with a red light and a piercing whistle, and conspires with his neighbor, Mrs. Lovett, to make the bodies into meat pies so no one will suspect anything.

Hess does an amazing job making the character sympathetic, and his vocal prowess nicely complements Sondheim’s often-unsettling score.

Perhaps the most impressive cast member is Mrs. Lovett, played by the outstanding Judy Kaye.

She also performed the role on Broadway, and it is her comfortableness with the part that makes the cast fit cohesively together.

Her character is needy and humorous at the same time, expressed in some of the best songs of the show, including “The Worst Pies in London” and “By the Sea.”

The audience’s heart aches during Kaye’s performance as they see her falling in love with Todd, a man whom it is clear has already fallen off the deep end. Kaye’s voice is powerful and resonant, an appreciated tone in the production.

Although the play is a little long, each moment is filled with tense action and foreshadowing of the depressing events already set into motion.

What helps the show to retain a quick pace is the lack of set changes and having the cast on stage as the musicians.

It is truly impressive that the cast is acting as the orchestra. Lauren Molina, who plays Todd’s long-lost daughter, plays the cello throughout the show, and often sings simultaneously.

The audience is able to appreciate the work that must have gone into choreographing the scenes, with the actors lugging around their instruments.

Another added feature of the cast using instruments is that all movements are made for a reason, not to simply move about the stage.

The show has a finality and grace that could have been lacking in other performances.

“Sweeney Todd” will run through April 6 at the Ahmanson Theatre at the Music Center in downtown Los Angeles.

Erin Konrad can be reached at

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