Cotuit's "Sweeney Todd": Still Cutting Edge

Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd: first as one of those sensational serialized “penny dreadful” Victorian publications in Britain (entitled “The String of Pearls”), subsequently in various British film and theatre versions, notably the 1973 play by Christopher Bond which led in 1979 to the popular musical. With Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and Book by Hugh Wheeler, it won eight Tony Awards including Best Musical. Now presented by Cotuit Center for the Arts, it’s a fine opportunity for theatergoers to revisit and renew their acquaintance with the titular demon barber who captured so many hearts (and other organs) some thirty-five years ago. The original Broadway production, directed by Hal Prince, was a triumph of stagecraft, consolidating many theatrical elements into an unforgettably cohesive whole. While some theatregoers were put off by the grisly subject matter, it was generally recognized as an ingenious metaphorical treatment of the British class system. It was a dark work but filled with exceptional gifts for the discerning audience, and Prince’s memorable production made for an incredibly juicy time.

In a similar vein, so to speak, this fine production is ably directed by Mary Arnault with a cast that includes the vengeful Sweeney Todd himself (Christopher Edwards) to his all-too-willing accomplice Mrs. Lovett (the wonderful Bonnie Fairbanks), the hero appropriately named Anthony Hope (Beau Jackett), his adored Johanna (Emma Fitzpatrick), and the loyal Tobias Ragg (Ari Lew). Also in the cast are the two “heavies”, Judge Turpin (Peter Cook) and the Beadle (Alex Valentine), as well as the scheming Pirelli (Gioia Sabatinelli, who also plays a mysterious Beggar Woman). Typically an ensemble fills the stage for this show with music and mayhem, but the “crowd” scenes are underpopulated here (singing offstage), diminishing the impact of the beehive of the British classes. The casting of the lead characters, however, succeeds (though two males are too mature for their parts), despite the daunting demands of this intricate score.


The score is Sondheim’s masterpiece, from the chilling title song (“The Ballad of Sweeney Todd”) and the Beggar Woman‘s “City on Fire”, to the wit of Mrs. Lovett‘s “The Worst Pies in London” and “By the Sea”, to the loveliness of her duet with Tobias in “Not While I’m Around” and Johanna’s “Green Finch and Linnet Bird”, as well as the Beadle’s “Ladies in Their Sensitivity”. In this version the often-dropped “Mea Culpa” by Judge Turpin is missing. and it's not a great loss. And then there’s “A Little Priest”, the jaw-droppingly hilarious first act closer with easily the funniest lyrics Sondheim ever wrote. (Spoiler alert: they include Mrs. Lovett’s description of “such a nice plump frame wot’s-his-name has…had…has”, and a reference to shepherd’s pie “peppered with actual shepherd on top”). The creative team includes Music Direction by Malcolm Granger, with Scenic Design by Andrew Arnault, Costume Design by Alan Trugman, Lighting Design by Greg Hamm, and Sound Design by Tristan DiVincenzo. Despite some shortcomings (a set that requires many awkward scene changes, having to go up in order to go down, and no menacing barber chair), it’s a virtual guarantee that, like Sweeney himself, you’ll be transported.

Widely considered not only Sondheim’s best musical composition, but among the best musicals and/or operas (take your pick, one could argue either way) ever written, it’s difficult to describe the work without divulging too much. As Sondheim wrote, “What happened then, well, that’s the play, and you wouldn’t want him to give it away, not Sweeney”. Therefore, you owe it to yourself, whether you’re very familiar with the work or a novice, as the first song in the Prologue attests, to “attend (this) tale of Sweeney Todd”. Just make sure you’re well groomed prior to a performance and don’t need a haircut or trim; otherwise, you might find yourself invited for dinner.

After all is said and undone, this production of a true gem for local theater (arguably Cotuit's best show ever) is devoutly to be cherished, now playing through October 27th; but you needn’t lose your head over it.

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