A Sinister SWEENEY TODD at Playcrafters

by Kelly Thunstrom
Benjamin Fried, John Keefrider in SWEENEY TODD.

Benjamin Fried, John Keefrider in SWEENEY TODD.

As I was leaving Playcrafters’ production of SWEENEY TODD Friday night, I overheard someone ask his friend what he thought of it. His response: “Well, it was no MARY POPPINS.” Uh, nope! SWEENEY TODD is as far from happy as you can get (the full title is SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET), with some of the darkest subject matter and two of the most challenging lead roles to ever grace the stage. Originally opening on Broadway in 1979 with music & lyrics by the great Stephen Sondheim, SWEENEY TODD has seen many revivals. Playcrafters’ production gets its stamp put on it by director David Deratzian, who made some really top-notch casting choices here.

Set in 19th century England, this is the story of Benjamin Barker, otherwise known as Sweeney Todd (Benjamin Fried). Barker returns to London many years after being bogusly charged by Judge Turpin (John Keefrider). Upon returning to his old home to see his family, he meets meat pie maker Mrs. Lovett (Sue Murphy), who tells him that his wife poisoned herself after being raped by the judge and Beadle Bamford (Denis Wheeler). His daughter, Johanna (Suzanne Rainear), is being kept prisoner by the judge, who wants to marry her, even though he long ago adopted her as his own daughter. Anthony (Matthew Mitlas) sees Johanna and instantly falls in love with her; it doesn’t take long before the feeling is mutual. Todd used to be a barber in his old life, and, after a contest with Pirelli (Natalie Madeira), quickly proves that he’s the best one in town. Unfortunately for his customers, he slits their throats when they are in his chair, and it doesn’t take long for Mrs. Lovett and Todd to have an “epiphany” regarding her meat pies. Mrs. Lovett teaches the young boy living with her, Tobias (Xander Dake) the process of meat-pie making, and the Beggar Woman (Allison Deratzian) begins to suspect that something is definitely not right in that pie shop.

Matthew Mitlas, Suzanne Rainear in a scene from Playcrafters of Skippack's SWEENEY TODD.

Matthew Mitlas, Suzanne Rainear in a scene from Playcrafters of Skippack’s SWEENEY TODD.

A production of SWEENEY TODD is only as great as its two leads, and Fried and Murphy are simply outstanding. Fried’s journey into madness is a frightening thing to behold, and his episode right before the meat pie epiphany is magnificently acted. His performance is very nuanced, and it’s difficult to take your eyes off him when he’s on stage. Murphy has Mrs. Lovett’s Cockney accent down pat and is very natural, particularly in “A Little Priest.” Both of their voices are more than capable of handling Sondheim’s challenging score.

Rainear and Mitlas play Johanna and Anthony with an appropriate young innocence, and Rainear especially has a beautiful voice. I would have liked to have seen more depth and richness in some of their scenes together, especially the gunshot scene and subsequent reunion, which seemed rushed to me. Even though Keefrider and Wheeler’s parts are villianous, they are very effective in them. Madeira plays Pirelli’s bravado to the hilt and has the accent nailed. Dake is a scene stealer as Tobias, and Deratzian puts every ounce of her being into playing the Beggar Woman, a role whose meaning is not revealed until the end of the play.

SWEENEY TODD is filled with accents galore and words that really need to be hung onto to be understood. Therefore, I’m hoping that the microphone issues get worked out because they were quite distracting.

Allison Deratzian, Benjamin Fried in SWEENEY TODD.

Allison Deratzian, Benjamin Fried in SWEENEY TODD.

So, no, it’s not MARY POPPINS. It’s twisted, macabre, and ultra dark, and Playcrafters pulls no punches with it. However, with two superb leads with vocals that just won’t quit, strong supporting characters, and a very talented ensemble, I highly recommend this production. Though if Mrs. Lovett asks you to try her meat pies, run in the other direction.

Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Directed by David Deratzian
August 8-24, 2013
Playcrafters of Skippack
2011 Store Road
Skippack, PA

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