It wasn't until we were in the deep depths of the first act of Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at the Gateway Playhouse that I realized something. Stephen Sondheim has a way of evoking strange emotions out of his audience: creating human ties to men (and women) plotting to kill the Presidents of the United States (Assassins); evoking comedy as a young woman hysterically decides she's not ready to marry the morning of her wedding (Company); and moving a crowd as an artist triumphantly tops off his painting with a hat, as he mutters to himself (Sunday in the Park with George).
And here it was happening again on a muggy Friday evening in Bellport.
The audience was beside themselves with laughter as Mrs. Lovett joyously proclaimed she would be using human remains to improve "the worst pies in London." Under normal circumstances, we would be disgusted and steer clear of that establishment. (In New York, a brightly-colored F would adorn her front window.) And even though we think it's disgusting, we laugh and grin. Sondheim is always able to toy with our emotions, and we want him to!
Sweeney Todd, originally a play by Christopher Bond, tells the dark and twisted tale of a barber, Benjamin Barker, who returns to London under the guise of Sweeney Todd after being falsely accused of a crime and banned to Australia. While hoping to reunite with his wife and daughter, he soon finds out from Mrs. Lovett, his old neighbor and the pie-shop owner, that his wife poisoned herself after she was raped by the judge amongst a crowd, the same judge who sent Sweeney away and now has possession of his daughter. Immediately, Sweeney is out for revenge, revitalizing his barber business and waiting for the chance to make the judge pay. Of course, things get complicated quickly. Throw in contemptuous coincidences, an innocent love story, and some blood and you have yourself quite a dark comedy.
If the ability to sway an audience from shock to happiness to horror to sympathy and back again is the measure of a show's success, I'd say Gateway's current production of Sweeney Todd scores off the charts. Add in the eerie orchestrations, the impressive sopranos, and an electrifying chemistry amongst the actors, as well as the well-crafted and swiftly moving set, and you have yourself a fine cut. In the theater's final production of their summer series, they conquer a challenging musical and connect with their audience in a way that would make Sondheim proud.
Jamie Jackson's portrayal of Sweeney is a full body event -- the penetrating eyes, the aggressiveness of his movements, and the ability to transform seamlessly from heartbroken husband and father to vengeful monster. He is a tough character to crack. While Jackson could have easily made Sweeney a person to fear, he makes it impossible for the audience not to feel compassion for him. And of course there is Mrs. Lovett, played by Alicia Irving, who trots and twirls around the stage like a young school girl eager to please Mr. Todd. Carefully and subtly, her darker side reveals itself -- most effectively as she rocks a young Tobias during "Not When I'm Around."
Together, Jackson and Irving form a strong team as they ride a delicate line between triumph and destruction.
Something also has to be said about the magic of live theater. During the rousing performance of "By the Sea", there was a minor blip when Ms. Irving's chair arm broke off under her. Never once did she break character or miss a note. She heroically played up the comedy. Those little moments remind us why theater is so special -- no two performances are ever the same.
Most moving, though, were the performances of Bonnie Fraser (Johanna), Bryan Welnicki (Tobias) and Jodi Stevens (Beggar Woman). Ms. Fraser fit the mind, body, soul, and sound of Joanna -- innocent, caged, and confused, while Welnicki dutifully played the purest heart of the entire show with a strong, beautiful voice and devastingly convincing demise as the production moved to a close. Even those who are not familiar with Sweeney Todd can't help but be drawn to the Beggar Woman, whether it be for her down and dirty comedy or sudden melodies. Nonetheless, Ms. Stevens serves as the conscience of the play, the reminder that your heart is still ticking under the engrossing storyline.