Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Talk is Free Theatre (TIFT) at the Neighbourhood Food Hub at Glen Rhodes Campus

Roman Boldyrev

Joe Szekeres

Clocking in at 3 hours and 30 minutes for opening night and told by an extraordinary cast, this ‘Sweeney Todd’ remains a monumental marathon of operatic song, dark satire, black humour, and ultimate revenge.

Remember, it’s ‘Sweeney Todd’. The story can’t be told and unfold quickly.

Keeping Covid protocols in place and ensuring safety for all audiences, TIFT ensures each performance is limited to 44 members. This was an extremely smart decision Director Mitchell Cushman made because I still got the sense a grand tale was being told to me although the setting in each of the rooms is minimalist. As we moved around the building, the audience becomes immersed fully in the action of the story. At one point, there is brief audience participation.

A reminder to future audiences to make sure you wear comfortable shoes as you will be walking up and down staircases, and you may be asked or signalled to stand at the back of certain rooms of the Neighbourhood Food Hub at Glen Rhodes Campus. As the night settles and darkness envelops both inside and outside, stairwells are appropriately lit by ushers who ensure everyone is safe walking up and down stairs but remember to pay attention in doing so. What was reassuring was the fact the ushers and actors (while maintaining character) didn’t rush us from each room.

The time is 1845. From TIFT’s website: “It is here we meet Sweeney Todd (Michael Torontow) whose real name is Benjamin Barker. Todd uses his new alias to resume work in his barber shop above Mrs. Lovett’s (Glynis Ranney) struggling pie shop after being wrongfully sentenced to life imprisonment by the corrupt Judge Turpin (Cyrus Lane). After swearing vengeance against the judge that tore his family apart, Todd and Lovett plot a unique plan that helps them both and leads them down a dangerous, thrilling path with deadly consequences.”

I saw the New York revival several years ago with Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone as the infamous duo. What worked so well in that minimalist production? The cast played their own musical instruments and director John Doyle maintained the musical’s sense of grandiosity throughout.

The New York production worked fine for me, but I felt distant from the action of the story from my seat in the house.

This didn’t happen in TIFT’s production.

I was mere inches away from some of the actors which truly fascinated me to be up this close. As we enter the building, Joel Cumber (billed as Ensemble) sits outside begging for money or scrap morsels. He wears ripped jeans, a torn jean jacket, unwearable sneakers, and a ripped t-shirt with backpack at his side. Hmmm. Okay…isn’t this a period piece?

Without spoiling the reason for Cumber’s costume, let’s just say it all cleverly comes full circle at the end of the production. Did it work for me? Yes!!!! I heard myself gasp when it became clear.

Before we enter the Sanctuary, we are instructed to sit where we see a lace tablecloth draped over the pew. We enter the Sanctuary where the setting sun casts an eerie glow of red and orange throughout the room. Immediately, members of the company are standing and posing on the pews like wax figures from Madame Tussaud’s. They are clothed in period costumes. Their faces with just the right touches of makeup have that look as if they have seen something awful which I’ve never experienced. There is another worldliness in their eyes and other than faces different from mine.

When the klaxon sounds at the top of the show…

Wow!

These ghostly figures then come to life and sing ‘The Ballad of Sweeney Todd’ with such deep vibrancy of a sound from a long time ago that gave me goosebumps. My eyes darted around the room to see what each of the actors was doing.

And here’s where it is fitting why TIFT (or Mitchell Cushman) decided to stage the production in this building.

Sweeney appears at the front of the sanctuary with ‘Unto you is a born a Saviour-Christ the Lord’ right behind him. Torontow’s intense profundo vocals combined with a frightening gaze of terror in his eyes juxtaposed with the loving Gospel message behind becomes a key visual element of horror.

Again, I say Wow!

There is so much to admire about this production. Laura Delchiaro’s costume designs splendidly capture the era so well from filthy dresses to torn sweaters. Nick Blais’s lighting design hauntingly heightens the sense of dread and fear that hovers in the air. I was impressed with some of the period props Kathleen Black found, in particular the feather pen and ink Sweeney uses in the second act. Cameron Carver’s choreography remains sharp and purposeful, especially in staging some of the Greek chorus numbers commenting on the play’s action. ‘City on Fire’ comes to mind.

Dan Rutzen’s sensational Music Direction remains one of the highlights of the production. Another wise decision was made to have four musicians as the focus then becomes the story and the song. It was truly gorgeous and marvellously enchanting to hear these vocals reverberate in the Sanctuary. Two of these numbers were Griffin Hewitt’s (Anthony Hope) singing of ‘Johanna’ and ‘God, That’s Good!’ at the top of Act 2. Because I know the show, I knew what each of the characters was singing; however, there were moments when I couldn’t hear some of the lyrics so someone who doesn’t know the show may not catch everything.

Cushman’s successful vision of creating a human connection in this immersive ‘Sweeney’ remains consistently visible. Here’s where the immersive element fabulously works because eye contact between actor and audience member becomes that much stronger. Michael Torontow becomes a ferocious and voracious Todd, hellbent on revenge. His ‘My Friends’ in that intimate room holding with shaving blade so tenderly with audience members around still haunts me as I write this. There are moments where we do see Sweeney has been deeply hurt by what has happened in his previous life. Watch Torontow’s body language before Ranney sings ‘By the Sea’.

Just watching Glynis Ranney as Mrs. Lovett, I finally realized the extent of her character arc. She must be everything to everyone – a mother figure, a confidant, a schemer, a ‘supposed’ lover, a caretaker, an accomplice to murder. Ranney powerfully packs believable, realistic emotions in each of these scenes. Her ‘Worst Pies in London’ is wonderful comic gold, especially in the way she beats the dough each time she punctuates a note. So good.

Cyrus Lane believably and shockingly reveals the madness of Judge Turpin quite disturbingly (which is how it should be). During his self-flagellation scene, Lane’s controlled but highly accentuated work made me close my eyes quickly as he believably uses the whip on himself while the ensemble behind the plexiglass window realistically provides the whipping sound. A third wow factor.

Andrew Prashad’s The Beadle becomes just as terrifying as Turpin. The look on Prashad’s face and in his eyes when he kills the bird in the cage caught my eye while someone standing next to me inhaled in shock. As the Beggar Woman, Gabi Epstein demonstrates her impressive vocal range when she sings ‘Alms, Alms for a miserable woman.’ She locked eyes with me at one point and the inherent sadness emanating from them proved just how focused Epstein was at that moment. Memorable.

Lovebirds Johanna and Anthony Hope (Tess Benger and Griffin Hewitt) provide some relief from all the intensity and mayhem until she is captured and taken to an asylum. Benger’s ‘Green Finch and Linnet Bird’ sung from the Sanctuary balcony lovingly soars to the rafters. Their comic duet ‘Kiss Me’ beautifully becomes delightful.

Another wonderful bit of much-needed humour is Jeff Lillico’s playfully haughty shyster Adolfo Pirelli who confronts Sweeney Todd on who the better barber is (until we learn of Pirelli’s secret). Lillico punctuated those moments with precise intention in each word sang. As the sidekick to Pirelli at the beginning, Noah Beemer’s dutiful ragamuffin Tobias Ragg sweetly tugs at the heartstrings in the duet ‘Not While I’m Around’ with Ranney, but that all the changes while the course of events spirals quickly downward.

Final Comments: I’ve read so much about Talk is Free Theatre over the last couple of years of the pandemic about the company’s ingenuity to tackle well-known theatrical works and present them in new ways. I never got the chance to see last summer’s ‘Into the Woods’ which took place in the woods in Barrie.

I didn’t want to miss what the company had planned this summer.

Talk is Free refreshingly presents ‘Sweeney Todd’ uniquely, resourcefully, and grandiosely. Worth a trip to see it.

Running time: 3 hours and 30 minutes.

Covid protocols in place. Only 44 audience members each performance.

Show runs to July 3 at the Neighbourhood Food Hub at Glen Rhodes Campus, 1470 Gerrard Street East, Toronto. For tickets, visit tickets.tift.ca or call 1-705-792-1949.

SWEENEY TODD: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and Book by Hugh Wheeler
Presented by Talk is Free Theatre
Director: Mitchell Cushman
Music Director: Dan Rutzen
Choreographer/Associate Director: Cameron Carver
Set and Properties: Kathleen Black
Lighting Designer: Nick Blais
Costume Designer: Laura Delchiaro
Musicians: Samuel Bisson, Gemma Donn, Stephan Ermel, Dan Rutzen

Cast: Michael Torontow, Glynis Ranney, Noah Beemer, Tess Benger, Joel Cumber, Gabi Epstein, Griffin Hewitt, Jeff Lillico, Andrew Prashad

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