The stage of “Sweeney Todd” inside the Hanna Theater is daunting, dark and miserable. Rafters and beams criss-cross the second floor of the set, illuminating the ground with spider web patterns ready for capture.
This version, by the Great Lakes Theater Company, has the plot loom like impending death from the first pounding song. It isn’t until the delightfully sadistic Mrs. Lovett (Sara Bruner) enters the stage that you glimpse the brighter side of murder, filled with dreadlocks, bra slips and creative ideas for disposing of dead bodies. However, she doesn’t do the actual killing. That job’s for her crush: Sweeney Todd.
Actor Tom Ford’s portrayal of Sweeney is unsettling. His rage caps off moments of subdued anguish even though many of those subdued moments are the murders themselves; Sweeney slashes throats one after another as though he’s cutting up vegetables for a dinnertime salad. These moments of monotony are flanked by explosive outbursts to remind everyone of his inner boiling against the world.
Also, he’s bald.
Maybe it’s just the 2007 Tim Burton film that screws with Sweeney’s character, but it’s all too easy to imagine the demon barber with a crazy mane. Despite this, Ford’s creative portrayal proves that Johnny Depp hasn’t defined the iconic performance— He makes it his own.
Ford’s representation of Sweeney Todd was a whirl of juxtapositions: Hairless, but constantly shaving hairy men; yelling, or broodingly silent; regretful, yet swamped in revenge.
He was a great Sweeney, but the real standout performance was loopier than the demon barber.
Let’s get back to Lovett.
Mrs. Lovett owns a pie shop with the rumor of selling “the worst pies in London,” and she herself is probably the worst person in London. It’s easy to sympathize with Bruner’s performance, full of pecking kisses against Sweeney’s bald head and protective embraces around Tobias Ragg (Chris Cowen), but in the end, you have to remind yourself that it was her cannibalistic idea to make pies out of people. The fantasy-like world she creates for herself and Sweeney is lovely— songs of the sea and a portrait of the two make them almost seem like a real couple. However, her deception doesn’t let the fantasy go far.
Sweeney’s own acts of vengeance are easy to understand after experiencing the rape of his wife. This flurry of a scene fills with colorful masked dancers sweeping and spinning, while Judge Turpin (Darren Matthias) attacks Sweeney’s wife in the middle of the stage.
For the rest of the play, I hate Turpin as much as Sweeney; the stark image of bright party dancers during this nightmarish act of violence lingers throughout the rest of the show.
Yet another division in the play is exemplified in the plight between Johanna (Clare Eisentrout) and Anthony Hope’s (Zach Adkins) love. Johanna is practically a bird in a cage while Anthony is completely free. Maybe opposites attract, or perhaps Eisentrout’s good looks and even better voice are too much for Anthony to turn down. Anthony’s tender song, appropriately titled “Johanna,” describes understanding her situation with the lyrics: “I feel you Johanna.”
“Sweeney Todd” is all about fighting and overcoming tensions, whether they’re within Sweeney himself, a scene of rape at a party or a romance between two opposites. The play steps beyond its gory scenes of splitting open necks to show that revenge never really works out like you think it would.
Also, apparently human meat makes for a pretty good flavor of pie. Who knew?