Murderous fun

Brown Theatre's 'Sweeney Todd'
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  October 1, 2014

OCCUPIERS The Brown crew. [Photo by Danielle Perelman]

We theater lovers must really be sick puppies. Otherwise, why would the 1979 musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street have followed up the play of the same name by Christopher Bond? “Hey, let’s fun-up the story of serial killing and cannibalism with some bubbly tunes!” Stephen Sondheim, who did the music and lyrics, probably said to Hugh Wheeler, who wrote the book.

It’s such a darkly delicious tale that Curt Columbus, the artistic director of Trinity Rep, wanted to direct the current Brown University Theatre production (through October 5). Music direction is by Brown senior Lizzie Callas.

This is a lively experience from the outset, when the ensemble scowls and growls the thunderous title song: “Lift your razor high, Sweeney! Hear it singing! Yes! Stick it in the rosy skin of righteousness!” Shudder. The production attempts to frame the anger in the story in the context of the Occupy Movement and its amorphous resentment of pesky authority. Before the play proper begins, two “policemen” stroll around, hassling actors playing theatergoers. The performance is being put on by the occupiers on a makeshift stage.

The time is 1846, and we first see Sweeney (Patrick Madden) just after he has disembarked in London from a ship, saying farewell to providential shipmate Anthony Hope (Jesse Weil), who had rescued his temporary companion on a raft.

Sweeney — his real name is Benjamin Barker — has returned illegally, having been banned for life 15 years before and shipped to Australia on a trumped-up charge. He lost his wife Lucy, who poisoned herself after he left, and his young daughter Johanna (Katherine Doherty) to Judge Turpin (Skylar Fox), who had been lusting after Lucy and now has turned his lecherous attentions to Johanna, who has been his ward. So behind Sweeney’s murderous seething is a trifecta of personal injustices that the judge has inflicted on him. Good luck, Turpin. Sweeney decides that “we all deserve to die,” so at his barber chair he goes about cutting the throats of strangers to town and others who won’t be missed.

Madden gives good glower, and balancing that dark energy is the perfectly delightful performance of Natalie McDonald as Mrs. Nellie Lovett, who starts out as Sweeney’s landlady and ends up as his lover and co-conspirator. It’s possible that perky, thoughtless malevolence has been portrayed elsewhere with more charm and entertaining insouciance, but not that I’ve witnessed.

A lightbulb brightens over her head when it occurs to her that all these meaty young men Sweeney is planning to dispatch will be going to waste above her bakery, which has been serving “the worst meat pies in London,” by her admission. What a bold entrepreneur. Their celebratory song that concludes Act I, “A Little Priest,” is a hoot and boosts his spirits: “Those crunching noises pervading the air,” he observes: “It’s man devouring man, my dear/And then who are we to deny it in here?”

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