From the moment one lays eyes on Brian Bembridge’s masterful unit set for Ensemble Theatre Company’s terrific new production of Sweeney Todd, it’s clear that something special is about to happen. In director Jonathan Fox’s intimate interpretation, Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece of the macabre gains in intensity without losing any of the power more typically associated with grander spectacles. The ten performers onstage and the five piece band cunningly hidden beneath their feet combine to create an expert realization of the complex score and the darkly humorous script. Before the night is over, viewers are thoroughly immersed in this underworld where Sweeney moves beyond good and evil. Well, OK, maybe not beyond evil.
With his excellent voice and clear understanding of the character, David Studwell makes a great Sweeney. His love song to the razors he left behind is particularly chilling. When he announces that ‘my arm is complete again’ when he holds the shining blade, you just know that he’s thinking about doing more than just shaving someone. Heather Ayers sings beautifully as well, and balances neatly on the line between comedy and horror in her performance as the nasty baker Mrs. Lovett. Yet the real excitement generated by this talented pair of leads comes when they support and react to the other fine performances that surround them. Ayers, for example, is splendid in her scenes with Chris Kauffmann, who plays Tobias, the innocent young assistant to rival barber and initial victim, the mountebank Pirelli (Justin Cowden).
Norman Large gives Judge Turpin the right leering insidiousness, and Craig McEldowney nails the role of Beadle Bamford. Michaelia Leigh and Karole Foreman, as Johanna and the Beggar Woman respectively, both find new ways to bring life to these crucial roles. Ultimately, the real star of any good production of Sweeney Todd is the music itself, and musical director Matthew R. Meckes has done a remarkable job of preparing the cast and band for this highly challenging material. In the end, one is left to contemplate not only the evil of a serial killer, but also the great beauty of Sondheim’s vision as a composer. What an achievement this show is, to have reimagined the Broadway musical so thoroughly, and yet to have adhered so closely to its underlying form.