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« The Second City & Hubbard Street Dance's Collaboration is a Stunning Success "How Do You Do?" Find out at 20x2 Chicago Oct. 25 »

Theater Wed Oct 22 2014

Porchlight Stages Rousing Version of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd

sweeney todd
Photo by Brandon Dahlquist.

Does anyone ever return from the netherworld not seeking murderous revenge against those who condemned them? The legend of the revenge of The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was introduced in a penny dreadful novel in mid-19th century London. From page to stage to movie and television, Sweeney Todd has lived a vibrant life ever since, slicing his way into the jugular of our permanent consciousness.

Todd uses his "friend," his razor, to slit the throats of his victims while his compatriot bakes them into tasty pies. The story punches into every universal fear -- quick, violent death, and cannibalism (either being consumed or consuming). There's been little revision from early performances of the Christopher Bond play. The contemporary version adds music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Only the songs and performers change in the many dramatic lives of Sweeney Todd. The terror and our inclination to root for an anti-hero remain the same.

Porchlight Music Theatre's rousing production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street introduces us to the barber formerly known as Benjamin Barker (a stage-commanding David Girolmo). He's on a mission for revenge, having returned to London after spending 15 years in prison on a trumped-up charge, stripped of his wife and baby daughter by the sadistic and powerful Judge Turpin (Edward J. MacLennan).

His fellow passenger to London, the appropriately named Anthony Hope (Brian Acker) is going to London to seek a new life, while Barker seeks to reunite with wife and daughter and avenge the years lost. Upon arrival, Barker learns his wife is dead and his daughter is under the guardianship of the Judge. Hope sees Todd's daughter, Johanna (Stephanie Stockhill) and they fall in love. Meanwhile, however, the judge has decided to marry Johanna himself.

Nellie Lovett (Rebecca Finnegan), a meat pie shopkeeper whose business is floundering, offers the newcomer the room over her bakery to ply his barber trade -- the same room where another barber, Benjamin Barker, once had a tonsorial shop. Now having taken on the identity Sweeney Todd, the barber agrees and plots a way to retrieve Johanna from Turpin's clutches.

Adolfo Pirelli (a lively Kevin Webb), claiming to be the world's fastest and most famous barber, hits London, with his orphaned assistant Tobias Ragg (Miles Blim). Todd spots a prime opportunity to establish himself as the greatest barber in all of Europe -- and a way to have access to the Turpin's world. He challenges Pirelli to a contest to establish the better barber, and wins. However, post-loss, Pirelli becomes greedy and attempts to blackmail Todd, and in doing so, becomes Sweeney's first fatal "quick-shave" above the pie shop.

The love between Anthony and Johanna makes Turpin so furious that he sends his adopted daughter/fiancée to an insane asylum until she comes to her senses and rejects Anthony and accepts the Judge as her future husband.

Bloodlust rolls through Todd and as the body count mounts, Mrs. Lovett finds a solution for the disposal of bodies, "the price of meat being what it is." Nellie bakes them into the best meat pies in England, bringing in a perpetual crowd of customers. In "A Little Priest," Sweeney and Nellie celebrate their new business model. In an often-quoted lyric, Sweeney sings: "The history of the world, my sweet / is who gets eaten, and who gets to eat!"

Twice-orphaned Toby happily serves the pies up to customers, wanting only to make his "new mum" in Nellie Lovett, as happy as he can. But he cannot shake the dark feeling that Todd is cutting more than heads and Nellie's newfound success is not as Grade A as she claims it to be. The city stinks, and the stench is coming directly from Nellie's bakery chimney.

Sweeney and Anthony devise a scheme and Anthony frees Johanna. Finally Turpin enters Sweeney's barbicidal lair and is fatally dispatched. But the murders and the meat pies have drawn too much attention. The authorities close in and Sweeney and Nellie meet their final fate while Toby absentmindedly continues to grind meat.

Director Michael Weber and the Porchlight ensemble pull off an ambitious production. It's a small stage for such a large and legendary undertaking. The cast members give solid and stirring musical performances, with Rebecca Finnegan delivering an uproarious and voluptuous Nellie, cementing the production. She plays well with and against David Girolmo (Barker/Sweeney), whose baritone fills up the smaller space, but does not overpower it. Miles Blim, a high school senior, plays Toby with energy and charm. Doug Peck's musical direction and the five-person musical group do justice to the Sondheim music. This version of The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is an enjoyable performance, and moves along swiftly despite being a two-and-a-half-hour show.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, staged by Porchlight Music Theatre, runs through Nov. 16 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont. Tickets are $39-45 and can be bought online or by calling 773-777-9884.

 
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Joe Wehry / October 22, 2014 3:46 PM

This is a great musical that must be seen, but the reviewer pretty much tells the entire plot. Did she get paid by the word?

Julie / October 22, 2014 7:05 PM

I'm with Joe, this isn't a review, it's a synopsis that gives away the ENTIRE plot.

Jayson / October 23, 2014 9:35 AM

Saw the production last Friday. It was amazing and a lot of fun! Highly suggest going.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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