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Sweeney Todd Cuts As Sharply As Ever

This article includes mature content:
References to violence

Grand Rapids Circle Theatre's production of Sweeney Todd is a dark triumph.
Circle Theatre's production of Sweeney Todd

Circle Theatre's production of Sweeney Todd /Circle Theatre

At first, you don’t see him. You see others, though: the citizens of long-ago London. Horror-struck, they sing operatically of Sweeney Todd, a man they call “the demon barber of Fleet Street.” Todd shaved his customers, yes, shaved them all too closely…

"He shaved the faces of gentlemen / Who never thereafter were heard from again…"

Finally, Todd materializes.

In Circle Theatre’s production, the mysterious demon barber is played by Cory Schutter. However, you don’t see Schutter. Instead, you see Sweeney Todd himself: a man of menacing physicality, thrumming with rage and primed for violence. He looks both all too human and like a creature out of myth. To some degree he is a creature out of myth, since he first appeared in The String of Pearls, a penny dreadful published in installments between 1846-47. Since then, Todd has lurked in the darker corners of our collective imagination.

The musical (book by Hugh Wheeler, music by Stephen Sondheim) tells this story in a grand and operatic manner. It begins with Todd, or the man calling himself Todd, returning to London after a long and unjust exile. A former barber, he was punished without cause by a judge who lusted after Todd’s beautiful, faithful wife. By exiling him, the judge has deprived Todd both of the company of his wife and of his young daughter, Johanna.

Todd soon meets Mrs. Lovett, played by Emily Diener, the owner of a struggling pie shop. Lovett tells him that his wife, Lucy, was brought by the judge to a masked ball and raped. She also tells Todd that his daughter is being held captive by that same judge and that Lucy, in her grief, poisoned herself. Todd vows revenge.

What follows is a tale of shocking violence, dark coincidence and, crucially, humor. Sweeney Todd is funny. Mrs. Lovett alone, with her combination of matronly charm and brazen amorality, is worth any number of sitcoms. Diener plays her perfectly, leaning into her madness without ever sacrificing believability. She’s so entertaining that it would be easy to miss how beautifully she’s singing – don’t do that.

As Todd seeks to reestablish himself as a barber, we’re given a tour of Victorian London in all its grime, muck and vitality. Todd watches as a young boy named Tobias Ragg (Meaghan Gietzen) extols the virtue of tonics sold by Adolfo Pierelli (Tyler Suttner), an Italian barber (or fraud). “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” plays like an old Victorian advertisement brought wonderfully to life.

Soon enough, Todd has set up shop above Mrs. Lovett’s pie store. The arrangement makes sense. Todd's rage has made him murderous and, well, meat doesn’t come cheaply these days. Waste not, want not, and all that. It’s a magnificent conceit, both grim and comic, and the production squeezes every last drop out of it. Sondheim’s music, perhaps as brilliant as anything else he ever wrote, doesn’t do anything as cliched as “transcend” or “elevate” the material. Instead, it reveals the material’s heightened, mythic character.

As the plot spins darkly, Schutter (as Todd) remains its center. He’s perfectly cast. As you watch him brood in his chair or raise his razor in triumph, you can understand why he does what he does. You understand how grief and rage have wrecked and warped him.

Circle Theatre’s production is fine indeed, both a dark treat for a chilly evening and a reminder of what we can allow ourselves to become, as well as what we lose when we become it.

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