Red Branch Theatre Company’s set for its production of Sweeney Todd extends beyond the stage. After you hand your ticket to the usher, you are directed down a dark hallway and through thick plastic curtains, as if you are entering a slaughterhouse. Actors mill about the stage. They are dressed in dark reds and blacks, sport tattoos, and wear heavy eyeliner and leather. One actor takes out a mysterious bag of white powder.
…Red Branch Theatre Company has created an environment so enticing and terrifying, it took me a few moments to step back into reality when I walked out of the theatre.
Welcome to Fleet Street, home of London’s darkest corners and most suspicious characters. Though the original Sweeney Todd is set in 19th century London, Red Branch has updated their production to a more contemporary period. Plastic lines the walls, decorated with exposed tubing. Trashcans bearing hazardous waste labels litter the stage, along with old construction tools. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think I was about to see a really dark version of Stomp.
With boisterous energy, the ensemble jumps into the opening, “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.” This ensemble cannot be praised enough. As a cohesive body, they move together, slinking across the stage towards the audience and singing the dissonant harmonies of Sondheim’s music with gusto. Lynn Joslin’s lighting design pulls you right into the creepy streets of Sweeney’s London, with a harsh red glow highlighting the lines of character’s faces, making them seem demonic.
Sweeney Todd (Russell Sunday) swoops in with a booming voice and frightful presence. He has returned to London after being banished for many years by Judge Turpin (Kenneth Derby), who pursued Sweeney’s wife. Now Sweeney wants revenge, and will stop at nothing to get it. He meets Mrs. Lovett (Janine Sunday), who owns a failing pie shop, and decides to rent the room above her shop. After realizing that Mr. Todd is really Benjamin Barker, a barber exiled many years ago, Mrs. Lovett persuades Todd to resume his business and enact revenge on Judge Turpin and his servant, Beadle Bamford.
Russell and Janine Sunday (a husband and wife duo) are fantastic as Todd and Lovett. Both are skilled vocalists, traversing the wide range of Sondheim’s music with ease. Janine Sunday is a delight to watch as she switches from cheerful landlady to plotting cohort. In “By the Sea,” Sunday showcases the versatility of her voice by singing beautiful high notes alongside nazally seagull noises, to comedic effect.
While Sweeney plans his revenge, Anthony (Patrick Burr), a young sailor, meets Johanna (Laura Whittenberger), Judge Turpin’s beautiful ward (and Sweeney’s daughter). He falls in love with Johanna and promises to rescue her from Turpin’s clutches. Burr and Whittenberger are both talented young vocalists, conquering some of the show’s more operatic pieces. Burr is fetching as the lovesick Anthony, gracefully scaling the challenging intervals of “Johanna.” As Johanna, Whittenberger is alluring, exhibiting a lovely soprano voice on “Green Finch & Linnet Bird.”
In a comedic break from the increasingly grim events, we are introduced to Pirelli (Jesse D. Saywell) and his assistant, Tobias Ragg (Brian Patrick McNally), con artists who sell an elixir for hair loss. In an attempt to gain customers, Todd challenges Pirelli to a shaving contest, and later a hilarious tooth-pulling contest. In this cast of talented vocalists, Saywell is a standout. While attempting to shave a man’s face, Saywell sings the fast-paced “The Contest” with dexterity, humor, and a phony Italian accent.
Judge Turpin, played brilliantly by Kenneth Derby, steps into Sweeney’s shop for a shave, and the two sing the lovely, “Pretty Women.” After his revenge against Judge Turpin is foiled, Sweeney sings “Epiphany,” in which he declares that everyone deserves to die (under his knife). As if that isn’t macabre enough, Mrs. Lovett, who has always secretly loved Mr. Todd, confesses what an awful waste all that flesh would be. In the darkly funny and seductive, “A Little Priest,” the two decide that it would only be economical to use Todd’s victims in Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies.
Act II begins with a rousing ensemble song, “God, That’s Good!” While Sweeney is busy offing his customers, Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop is thriving, though that won’t last long. Lovett takes the naïve Tobias Ragg on as her shop assistant. Brian Patrick McNally, who plays Ragg, is a superb physical actor. His descent into madness is both captivating and heartbreaking. Santina Maiolatesi plays Beggar Woman, another physically demanding role. Hunched over and shaking (with a hauntingly beautiful voice), Maiolatesi transforms herself completely into the role.
Director Walter Ware III has inventively staged this production of Sweeney Todd. Actors frequently make their way up the aisles, creating an eerie music against the plastic walls. In Act II, when Judge Turpin throws Johanna into a mental institution, we hear screeches and screams from somewhere offstage. Ware has worked closely with the production team to use every inch of the space. In one instance, Judge Turpin uses a sawhorse as a sort of prayer bench.
Scenic Designer Chester Stacy and Props Designer Kat Fleshman have developed a malleable set for this intimate space. Johanna’s window transforms into Mrs. Lovett’s oven, and Todd’s chair of death swiftly delivers his victims to the basement. Though there were some minor microphone problems, actor’s voices carry well in this space. Music Director Dustin Merrell has done an excellent job managing the complicated meters and fast pace of Sondheim’s music.
Costumes by Alison Samantha Johnson deserve much applause. Johnson has created a wardrobe that seems to transcend different time periods. Ensemble members look as if they’ve had a rough night at an underground death metal concert. Sweeney is dressed in a combination of 19th century black formal wear and biker grunge, while Mrs. Lovett wears a seductive, yet tattered red slip. The amount of detail in these costumes is incredible, up to the matching tattoos of ensemble members and the patched jeans worn by Tobias Ragg.
Good theatre has the power to immerse audiences in another world. I’ll admit, Red Branch Theatre Company has created an environment so enticing and terrifying, it took me a few moments to step back into reality when I walked out of the theatre.
Running Time: Two and a half hours, with intermission.
Advisory: Graphic violence.
Sweeney Todd runs through April 30th at Red Branch Theatre Co., 9130-I Red Branch Rd, Columbia, MD 21045. Click here for tickets.