By Sue Suchyta
“Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is offering its unique and macabre musical magic at the Fisher Theatre now through April 5. In the wake of the popular Johnny Depp movie, the touring company has taken several innovative steps to set themselves apart.
The production is introduced through the memory of a traumatized boy, whose tortured mind recalls the events to be retold. Furthermore, the staging puts the instruments in the hands of the actors on stage to viscerally impact the story’s presentation and to emphasize the importance of the music on the play’s mood.
Sweeney Todd was once a happy young barber with a pretty young wife and daughter, until a jealous and corrupt judge falsely accused Todd of a crime, sent him to a penal colony, then stole his wife and child. The action begins 15 years later, when Sweeney Todd returns to London, intent on revenge. Mrs. Lovett, who runs the pie shop below his former barbershop, becomes his partner in crime when she helps Todd dispose of his victims in a manner that improves the flavor of her meat pies.
Bringing the orchestration on stage, and having the actors play when not immediately involved in the scene, further expand the complex emotions that the actors portray. It makes the music more than a background sound track: It gives it a life of its own. Watching the actors play the instruments is at first disconcerting, because there is so much to watch. However, the instruments soon become an extension of the actors’ personalities, and it adds an interesting dimension to their characters in an already complex play.
Merritt David Janes is compelling in the complex role of Sweeney Todd. Carrie Cimma is sassy and smart as Mrs. Lovett.
Duke Anderson is likeable and sincere as Anthony, the young sailor who rescues Todd, then unwittingly falls in love with his now grown daughter, Johanna, portrayed by Wendy Muir. Their cello duets on stage are surprisingly moving and fascinating to view amid the other action on the stage.
Chris Marchant, as Tobias, the young boy, had the difficult challenge of making us see him as a traumatized child, which he achieves by the end of the second act, despite his outward adult appearance.
The setting of the play is simplified, with actor-manipulated furniture and prop pieces enabling the scene changes. It reminds one of the sparse staging of “Our Town” sans the innocence.
The costumes swing from the 18th century to the modern day, and incorporate blood artfully splattered on white lab coats to represent the murders and loss. Mrs. Lovett’s clothes become glittery and less tattered as her fortunes improve, but her outward appearance remains tacky and without any veneer of class.
Fans of Depp will be disappointed if they think the play will provide a stage clone of the movie. The stage production goes in a different direction, making the story — and not the tortured soul — the star. This staging of the play is unique in its own right, and defies comparison with the movie, which is one of the obstacles the creative team no doubt wished to overcome.
Tickets are available at the Fisher Theatre box office, by phone, at (800) 982-2787, or online, at www.ticketmaster.com, or www.broadwayindetroit.com. For more information about the show, go to the Web site www.sweeneyontour.com.