Review: In Time for Halloween, Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street Arrives with Strong Vocals, Clever Staging

As we left the Chopin Theatre Friday night, after an appropriately spooky and decidedly well-sung performance of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street presented by Kokandy Productions, I commented to my guest how much I appreciated any show populated by a young, hungry cast. These performers so wanted to be a part of a production that they committed their evenings and weekends to its rehearsal and presentation. And sure enough, a quick check of the digital program confirmed it: among this talented ensemble are a full-time nonprofit attorney and at least one current theater student. The median age of the cast is somewhere in the late 20s (mmmmaybe early 30s), making it hard to believe these babyfaced actors are citizens of the rough and tumble cobblestone streets of mid-19th century London. But staged as it is in the round in Chopin’s downstairs theater, with a DIY rotating centerpiece and a production design that relies more on pantomime than actual props, the show becomes something to discover, an example of Chicago’s thriving storefront theater scene and the people committed to making it great.

Derek Van Barham directs this production of Stephen Sondheim’s 1973 macabre classic, about a man returned to London after a 15-year prison sentence abroad. Having lost his wife and daughter to a bourgeois local judge who raped the woman (who later poisoned herself) and took on the girl as his ward, the barber now known as Sweeney Todd (Kevin Webb) decides to ply his trade (and get his revenge) in a shop above a meat pie shop owned by the brassy Mrs. Lovell (Caitlin Jackson). His friend, the sailor Anthony (Ryan Stajmiger), spots the now-teenaged Johanna (Chamaya Moody) from the window in her room in Judge Turbin’s (Christopher Johnson) grand mansion and instantly falls in love. Meanwhile, a carpetbagger named Pirelli (Quinn Rigg) floats into town with a young boy, Tobias (Patrick O’Keefe), assisting him, only to come face to face with Todd’s brand of “close” shaves. All these narratives criss-cross and intersect over the show’s nearly three hours (with one intermission) in a show known for such classic Sondheim melodies as “Pretty Women,” “Johanna,” “A Little Priest,” and “Not While I’m Around.”

Kevin Webb and Caitlin Jackson. Photo by Evan Hanover.

With few exceptions, the cast of Sweeney Todd is a talented bunch; Webb and Jackson shine in their lead roles with powerhouse vocals, while Stajmiger and O’Keefe more than hold their own as well. And the audience gets to experience it all up close. The Chopin’s basement theater, a space already chockfull of character with mismatched seating (I was in a vintage lounge chair, my guest in an embroidered dining chair) and a sort of maximalist Victorian aesthetic, holds maybe 150 people, and though there are five (by my count) general mics hanging from the ceiling over the stage, none of the actors are mic’ed. This mostly works, until an actor is directly under one of them and all of a sudden we’re reminded they’re there. Van Barham and production designer G “Max” Maxin IV make inventive use of the small space, cast running this way and that through the aisles, out into the lobby and more. The small but sufficient live band is nestled into a corner and is even incorporated into one of the show’s later scenes.

Don’t expect any grand staging here; this is storefront theater, after all. But the creative team, including costumer Rachel Sypniewski and make-up designer Sydney Genco, work with what they have and create a sort of punk rock 1840s. Though the wigs are particularly rough and one wishes the ensemble costumes had a bit more flare to them, there’s a touch of ingenuity in a colorblock makeup theme and the way certain parts of the extended space serve as various parts of Mrs. Lovell’s pie shop and bakery. It’s all a valiant effort, one that pays off as the cast immerses us through their committed performances.

Fans of Sondheim can rest easy, his words and music are beautifully intact here; those uninitiated to this murderous show should perhaps prepare themselves for the brutal turns it takes (is it too soon for spoilers on a show that premiered in 1973?). By the end, there’s very few characters left to root for (if we ever were in their corners to begin with); like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory or more recently Hades Town, it’s not until after the curtain call that you might realize just how dark it actually gets. And yet, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street remains a crowd pleaser. There’s something about watching a man torn apart by grief enjoy the temporary pleasure of revenge only to see his evil deeds catch up with him…it’s more comeuppance than most bad guys get in the real world, at least. And the production couldn’t be better timed: add this to your Halloween in Chicago to-do list.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, by Kokandy Production, is playing through November 6 (performances Thursday through Sunday) at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St. Tickets and more information are available online here.

For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.

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Lisa Trifone
Lisa Trifone
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