Review: Sweeney Todd

Summer Stock Austin’s Sweeney Todd, aside from a few tech mishaps, is a bloody good thrill of a show

by Elizabeth Cobbe 

It’s jarring to think of a time and place in which a man who walks outdoors without a hat creates a scandal, but people bathe maybe once a month. Even more rarely do they bat an eye at child labor or corrupt justice. Sweeney Todd evokes the dirtiest aspects of Victorian England, and in the Summer Stock Austin production, the sight of innocence gradually drowning in filth holds center stage.

Don’t worry. There’s good music.

Summer Stock Austin casts its performers from the theatre program at St. Edward’s, other universities, and area high schools, and these student-actors create work that ranks a cut above what most performers at that level can manage. As the title character, Jacob Trussell more than holds his own as the demon barber who slits the throats of his customers and allows his downstairs neighbor, Mrs. Lovett (a wildly exuberant Kathleen Fletcher), to cook and serve the evidence in the form of hot-selling meat pies.

Turns out, it’s all for justice. Years ago, the Honorable Judge Turpin (Aaron Moten) took a fancy to Sweeney Todd’s wife and sent Todd to a penal colony in Australia on trumped-up charges. In Todd’s absence, his wife disappeared, and the judge chose to raise Todd’s daughter, Johanna (Mikayla Agrella), as his ward. Now Todd has escaped back to London, where he sets up his murderous parlor. As events unfold, the few characters with any innocence left gradually join the ranks of the corrupted. Witnessing their story is like observing a dissection in a Victorian medical amphitheatre.

The hot-and-heavy atmosphere may not have been intentional. Opening night of Sweeney Toddsaw a bad mic placement on the part of the leading man. For almost the entire 2½-hour performance, the whoosh, whoosh of Trussell’s breathing could be heard amplified into the theatre. It’s an absurdly easy problem to fix, and who knows why nobody thought to mention it to him at intermission. Hopefully, someone has addressed the issue since opening night. Meanwhile, my experience of the play must be imagined as background to the loudest nasal whistle you’ve ever heard.

It’s this lack of production support that bruises an otherwise decent show. The design, too, falls short of supporting the actors’ work. The three-story towers of scaffolding making up the set (designed by Joe Carpenter) evoke the claustrophobic, looming feel of Victorian London, but unfortunately, actors kept winding up in the dark. Typically that’s the fault of the actor who can’t find his or her light, but in this case, there isn’t much light for them to find. When Anthony Hope (Ben Mayne) and Johanna sing their love for each other across three stories of a house, one can’t help wondering what the attraction is when they can’t even see each other’s faces.

Barring the slip-ups and concepts that didn’t connect, this Sweeney Todd is a good live production to see on the tails of the 2007 film. It’s gross, it’s violent, and it’s as delicious as one of Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies.