Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Review – Sondheim’s Coup de Maitre

SWEENEY TODD Ensemble Cast - Photo by Craig Schwartz
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Who is Sweeney Todd and where and when did he first surface? Sweeney first appeared all the way back in 1846-1847 as the crazed villain in a serialized “penny dreadful” called “The String of Pearls.” Set in 1785, the tale introduced Mr. Todd to audiences, and they loved to hate him. Before the story’s ending was even completed, the events had already been turned into a play. By 1870, most Victorians were familiar with the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Several versions of murderous mayhem followed, but it was not until 1970 that author Christopher Bond presented “Sweeney Todd” to modern theater audiences with a nod towards motivation and other current psychological concerns. When Stephen Sondheim saw Bond’s play in 1973, he immediately thought that it would make a stirring musical: “What I did to Chris’ play is more than balance it. I had a feeling it would be a new animal…(director) Hal Prince gave it an epic sense, a sense that this was a man of some size instead of just a nut case.” In fact, Prince conceived of the play as a metaphor for the stresses inherent in The Industrial Revolution.

Joanna J. Jones, Amber Liekhus, and Cassandra Marie Murphy – Photo by Craig Schwartz

1979 saw the musical come to fruition on Broadway with book by Hugh Wheeler and music and lyrics by Sondheim. Original stars Len Cariou as Sweeney Todd and Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett helped form their characters in ways which would persist through multiple versions and adaptations of the show over the years. In fact, Lansbury’s view of Mrs. Lovett as “a dotty music hall character” lent elements of humor to the plot’s murderous horror. The critics loved it, and SWEENEY TODD won eight Tony Awards and the Olivier Award for Best Musical. Since over 80 percent of the show is music, opera critics felt that SWEENEY TODD “is an opera, a modern American opera.” A 2007 film starring Johnny Depp and Helen Bonham Carter received Oscar nominations and a Golden Globe Award. Now A Noise Within proudly presents SWEENEY TODD for 2024 audiences.

Cassandra Marie Murphy and Geoff Elliott – Photo by Craig Schwartz

Poor Sweeney Todd (Geoff Elliott). He was a happily married man with a lovely young daughter and a promising profession as an excellent barber. Then Judge Turpin (Jeremy Rabb) takes a shine to Sweeney’s wife, arrests and convicts Sweeney for a phantom crime and arranges his deportation to Australia, rapes Sweeney’s wife and drives her mad, and adopts Sweeney’s daughter Johanna (Joanna A. Jones). When Sweeney finally escapes and returns to England from Australia years later, he has only one thought on his mind: revenge. His meeting with Mrs. Lovett (Cassandra Marie Murphy), a baker of meat pies, proves fortuitous. She may be even crazier than Sweeney, and the two make the perfect villainous pair. They are soon making more money than they’ve ever seen after they discover a secret ingredient to enhance Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies. But financial rewards don’t really interest Sweeney. He has more murderous thoughts on his mind.

Cassandra Marie Murphy and Geoff Elliott – Photo by Craig Schwartz

A Noise Within does an excellent job of presenting SWEENEY TODD on a relatively bare stage by using creativity and cleverness to compensate for size and dollars, thanks to Francois-Pierre Couture’s fluid scenic design. The depiction of the barber’s murders are especially skillfully done. Kudos to director/choreographer Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and music director Rod Bagheri, who do a superbly sensitive interpretation of Sondheim’s classic musical. And let’s not forget the uber-talented cast of actors with the musical chops to sing and dance to perfection. Amber Liekhus (beggar woman with a secret) aces those powerful notes with precision – along with Geoff Elliott, Cassandra Marie Murphy, and the strong cast. The net result is a moving and entertaining interpretation of Sondheim’s classic coup de maître. This is a not-to-be-missed production.

Harrison White, Geoff Elliott, and Cassandra Marie Murphy – Photo by Craig Schwartz

SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER runs through March 17, 2024, with performances at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday (March 7), at 8 p.m. on Fridays, at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturdays, and at 2 p.m. on Sundays. A Noise Within is located at 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena, CA 91107. Tickets start at $29 (students $18; Pay-What-You-Choose starting at $10 available online beginning on Monday prior to that performance). For information and reservations, call 626-356-3100 or go online.


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