Jamie Hochmuth and Stuart Buthod in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, photo courtesy of the Augustana Photo Bureau/Lauren Becker
"There's a hole in the world like a great black pit, and it's filled with people who are filled with shit. And the vermin of the world inhabit it, and it goes by the name of London."
No lyrics better summed up the setting for a musical than these particular lines from Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and Augustana College's latest production delivers in filling the Potter Theatre with the polluted gloom and human hell that was 1840s London.
Sweeney Todd tells the tale of barber Benjamin Barker (Stuart Buthod), who was sent away on trumped-up charges by the lecherous Judge Turpin (Luke Currie) so the judge could deceive Barker's wife and satisfy his sadistic sexual desires. The musical picks up when the barber, now known as Sweeney Todd, returns to London seeking revenge. Todd is able to set up shop above the Fleet Street bakery of Mrs. Lovett (Jamie Hochmuth), and being in the meat-pie business when there is a shortage of traditional meat sources helps bring this demonic duo together, Lovett's pies filled with the victims of Sweeney's straight edge.
Director/choreographer Jerry Jay Cranford has created an intense and gloomy environment with a dash of steampunk thrown in for flavoring. Susan Holgersson, meanwhile, once again displays her beautiful scenic-design talents with a multi-level unit set that looks as filthy as an open sewer boasting a few bloody surprises. The platform that is home to the barber shop, however, does lead to sight-line challenges for some audience members' seats, and blocked key moments for me during opening night.
As the vengeful antihero, Buthod breathes dark and deep levels of anger into the veins of his Sweeney. He also makes great use of his rich baritone vocals that resonate a range beyond his age, as illustrated when Sweeney's opportunity to murder the judge is interrupted, sending him over the edge and into the audience's collective face with the explosive musical number “Epiphany.” Still, the character could have been more layered had Buthod occasionally dialed down the anger to allow the moments of humor and tenderness to fully emerge, making Sweeney more relatable.
Hochmuth baked up a tough and opportunistic portrayal of Mrs. Lovett. At times, I longed for the flighty and heavily accented version that is typical of the role; however, with her black-hearted smirks and plotting eyes, Hochmuth embraced a darker side to Lovett that I found wickedly fresh.
As Sweeney's and Lovett's young ward Tobias, Jacob Kilburg brought a tortured sweetness to the role. Kilburg sporadically veered in and out of a Cockney accent, but showed great acting depth when singing the hauntingly lovely “Nothing's Gonna Harm You.” And one of the richest performances of the show was that of Drew Gilson as Beadle Bamford. Playing the judge's henchman, Gilson's over-stylized creation was an audience favorite as his Beadle dripped with syrupy evil reminiscent of Tim Curry's in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
It's refreshing to see a cast perform an entire musical without any body microphones, and in Sweeney Todd, nearly every line was spoken and lyric sung with clean enunciation and adequate projection. Music director Michelle Crouch must be very proud of this rare accomplishment. Crouch's small on-stage orchestra also did a nice job with one of Sondheim's more challenging scores. Oftentimes, an orchestra can drown out a show's singers, but there were actually times here in which I wished the pit's volume had matched the climax of a scene, pushing the intensity up a notch or two.
The story does provide a glimpse of hope with the rescue of the virtuous Joanna (Madeline Witt) by the heroic Anthony (Steven Mondloch). Amidst the violence, there is also some wonderful humor, illustrated by rival barber Pirelli (John Whitson) and the disparaged and plot-twisting Beggar Woman (beautifully portrayed by Christine Broughton).
Murder is central to the show's plot, and this production executes a stylized version with lighting and other surprises that sometimes steal focus during each death. I'm no fan of slasher flicks; however, watching Sweeney murder his victims is one of the shocking aspects of this stage show, and I would have appreciated seeing just a little stage blood as the razor was drawn across each victim's throat. On the other hand, Cranford and crew have carved out a well-executed, very intense production that dives the audience deeply into Sweeney's tortured soul.
Attend this tale of Sweeney Todd, but you'd better book your appointment today. You'll be glad you did. You can bet your life on it.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street runs at Augustana College's Potter Theatre (Bergendoff Hall of Fine Arts, 3701 Seventh Avenue, Rock Island) through May 8, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)794-7306 or visiting Augustana.edu/arts.