SWEENEY TODD by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler (Talk is Free Theatre). Runs to July 3 at the Neighbourhood Food Hub at Glen Rhodes Campus (1479 Gerrard East). $70. tift.ca. Rating: NNNNN
I’m sure I will see many more productions of Sweeney Todd in my lifetime – Stephen Sondheim’s sardonic masterpiece is one of the best musicals ever written. (No, the Johnny Depp movie doesn’t count.) But I doubt I’ll see one as intimate and immersive as the current Talk Is Free Theatre version.
Originally mounted in 2019 in London, UK, as part of a two-continent spectacle called The Curious Voyage, it has been altered and is now serving up its delicious musical melodrama at the Neighbourhood Food Hub in the east end. It’s one of the best shows of the year.
The story of the eponymous barber (Michael Torontow) who returns to London to seek vengeance on the corrupt judge who sent him to prison and tore his family apart years earlier is a complicated one to stage.
Much of the show’s pleasure comes from seeing how director Mitchell Cushman uses pretty much every inch of the Hub’s multipurpose space – from the sanctuary, complete with pews, choir loft and altar, to the working kitchen in the basement and cozy nooks. Even a staircase is used effectively.
When we’re led into the sanctuary space, the show’s actors are standing frozen on various pews, but soon, thanks to an intriguing addition involving an outside figure, they’re reanimated to play out this mordantly funny tale.
Mrs. Lovett (Glynis Ranney), Sweeney’s enterprising, libidinous landlady, serves up her meat pies in an actual kitchen – I even got to taste one of her pies. Flashbacks often occur behind curtains using shadow (Nick Blais’s lighting, here and elsewhere, is exquisite). And some scenes, like the usually ho-hum second act ditty in which Mrs. Lovett dreams of genteel seaside life, work dramatically because they’re so intimately staged.
Cushman often uses the chorus to mimic or echo what the central characters are doing. This happens during the introduction of Sweeney’s orphaned daughter, the sweet-voiced Johanna (Tess Benger), who loves birds and is being held captive by her guardian, the evil Judge Turpin (Cyrus Lane). When Sweeney receives his custom-made barber chair, the ensemble plays around with chairs. And in one song usually cut from the musical, the judge castigates himself in a way that makes his creepy character even creepier, with the chorus echoing his actions through a glass wall.
Cushman also includes a moment of violence involving the young romantic couple that adds a fascinating take on the infectiousness of abuse, making a saccharine-sweet storyline more intriguing.
The cast, which includes Griffin Hewitt as Johanna’s suitor Anthony, Jeff Lillico as the preening, vain rival barber Pirelli, Andrew Prashad as the obsequious Beadle, Gabi Epstein as a Beggar Woman and Noah Beemer as the assistant Toby, is excellent.
Torontow’s dark, booming voice and charismatic presence make his Sweeney menacing and believable, and Ranney’s resourceful, darting-eyed Mrs. Lovett is always watchable – pay attention to her suggestive additions to Sweeney’s My Friends. Lane’s Judge is spectacularly nasty, although I’m not sure casting him so young (without any aging makeup) works.
Keep in mind that you’ll be doing a lot of walking during the show. If that thought intimidates you, be happy you’re not one of the musicians in the four-piece band (led by music director Dan Rutzen), some of whom have to quickly leave one station to get to another before the audience has fully arrived.
To borrow a line from another Sondheim show, art isn’t easy. But Cushman makes it seem so.