“Sweeney Todd”: Skylight Theatre Tackles an American Classic.

Andrew Varela and Christina Hall lead a delicious production of Stephen Sondheim’s landmark musical.

Big, bold, and, yes, bloody, the Skylight Theatre’s production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street once again makes a persuasive case that Stephen Sondheim’s “musical thriller” is a work for the ages. There are some, of course, who don’t need a reminder. They’ve embraced this most operatic of musicals since its Broadway premiere in 1979, and are particularly enamored of Harold Prince’s landmark staging–titanic in its day but since eclipsed by ever more elaborate and costly stagecraft. But since it’s premiere, Sondheim’s murderous barber has appeared in productions large (such as Bryn Terfel’s turn at the Chicago Lyric Opera) and small (John Doyle’s 2005 Broadway revival, in which the 10-person cast is the onstage orchestra as well as the actor-singers).

As befits the Skylight’s jewel box Cabot Theatre, Matthew Ozawa’s production is both majestic and intimate. Jason Orlenko’s costumes are appropriately Victorian, but Charles Murdock Lucas’s scenic design envelops the stage in a semi-Steampunk abstraction, with huge industrial scaffolding surrounding the actors. At times, the characters seem appropriately dwarfed by the superstructure, as when the sweet-voiced Anthony (Lucas Pastrana) sings his Romeo tribute to Johanna (Kelly Britt). But the dramatic fireworks occur when Ozawa brings his characters downstage, close to the audience, allowing the performers to really sell Sondheim’s glorious songs. (The set, by unfortunate necessity, places the scenes in Todd’s barbershop on a platform far upstage, which dulls their impact.)

Andrew Varela
Photo by Mark Frohna

The show is at its gleeful, sadistic best when the stage is given over to Todd (Andrew Varela) and his “business partner,” Mrs. Lovett (Christina Hall). Varela is an experienced Broadway performer who charts Sweeney’s journey with care, from his morose arrival in London to his madness and desperate obsession with fateful revenge. In Todd’s explosive “Epiphany,” he breaks the fourth wall and accosts the audience: “You sir! How about a shave!” You can actually sense the audience recoil a bit. This is a man unhinged and unpredictable.

Hall’s Mrs. Lovett is a perfect foil for Todd’s monomania. Live-by-your-wits sly, and constitutionally optimistic, she is always looking for an angle. Hall handles one of American theatre’s toughest songs, “The Worst Pies in London,” with the aplomb of a seasoned musician. but she doesn’t make a show of the complicated rhythmic gyrations. Instead, she turns the music into a hilarious character sketch of a woman who has learned to roll with the punches.

Christina Hall and Andrew Varela in Skylight Theatre’s “Sweeney Todd.”
Photo by Mark Frohna

In true Penny-Dreadful fashion, Sondheim and the playwright Hugh Wheeler add a healthy dollop of sentiment to the Grand Guignol mix, mostly embodied in the character of Tobias, Mrs. Lovett’s naive and witless assistant. Ryan Stajmiger plays the part with youthful Dickensian sweetness, and sings like a dream. The “heavy” lifting falls on Randall Dodge as Judge Turpin, the bad guy bass who has no patience for London ne’er-do-wells.

Sondheim’s music is as daunting as it is fun, and music director Ben Makino does a good job of helping the chorus and orchestra negotiate its challenges. There are moments when you long for the full-blown oomph of Jonathan Tunick’s original 26-piece orchestration (this production uses Tunick’s reduced, nine-musician score, written for a London revival). But the ensemble of singers he’s assembled is first rate, and captures the shrieky glory of some of the most outrageously difficult choral music ever written for a Broadway show.

So as the opening song goes, “attend the tale….” It runs through June 11th.




Paul Kosidowski is a freelance writer and critic who contributes regularly to Milwaukee Magazine, WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio and national arts magazines. He writes weekly reviews and previews for the Culture Club column. He was literary director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater from 1999-2006. In 2007, he was a fellow with the NEA Theater and Musical Theater Criticism Institute at the University of Southern California. His writing has also appeared in American Theatre magazine, Backstage, The Boston Globe, Theatre Topics, and Isthmus (Madison, Wis.). He has taught theater history, arts criticism and magazine writing at Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.