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Review: A Noise Within’s ‘Sweeney Todd’ Cuts Deep With Barbarous Passion & Revenge

(L-R) Cassandra Marie Murphy and Geoff Elliott in A Noise WIthin's production of "Sweeney Todd" in Pasadena, CA. Photo credit: Craig Schwartz

The highly anticipated production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street by A Noise Within is a marvelous deep dive into a darkly comedic horror where dissembled identities, cannibalism, and, most of all, an unquenchable thirst for vengeance impels its protagonist barber, ostensibly authorized by his sharpened silver razors, to reclaim a past that was wrongly usurped from him. Deftly directed and choreographed by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and led onstage by producing artistic director Geoff Elliott as Todd, the Pasadena theatre’s resident cast members are not only terrifyingly stupendous in actualizing Stephen Sondheim’s difficult-to-pull-off music and lyrics, but they seamlessly lure the audience to immerse themselves in the foreboding London town.

The ensemble in A Noise Within’s production of Sweeney Todd in Pasadena, CA. Photo credit: Craig Schwartz

With book by Hugh Wheeler and adaptation by Christopher Bond, the penny dreadful turned musical, over a period of 133 years, examines the motives of a man who has nothing to lose — because he has already been divested of everything meaningful to him. After being jettisoned for crimes not committed, Todd quietly returns after 15 years, flanked by a friend and good-natured young man in Anthony (James Everts). The tempered Todd meets a peculiar widow and owner of a dastardly tasting meat-pie shop, Mrs. Lovett (Cassandra Marie Murphy) and, through their initial chat, the audience learns that Todd is not the man he claims, but a long-suffering familiar figure from yesteryear; that is, his wife Lucy was raped and self-poisoned as a function of grief, and his daughter Johanna (Joanna A. Jones) is now the property of debauched Judge Turpin (Jeremy Rabb) whose repulsive aims are reinforced by servant Beadle (Harrison White).

The ensemble in A Noise Within’s production of Sweeney Todd in Pasadena, CA. Photo credit: Craig Schwartz

Elliott — as he has done so in Man of La Mancha, A Christmas Carol, and countless other works — thoroughly inhabits Sweeney Todd, bringing a tireless intensity and booming voice that conveys his persona’s blistering torment. The urgency with which the brutish barber is realized grabs attendees by their lapels as they, too, cannot wait to see a bloody, doled-out comeuppance. Simultaneously, Elliott is adept at walking fine lines without overstepping as in when he shifts into comic territory without undermining the solemnity of Todd.

Much of Sweeney Todd’s levity is offered by Murphy’s Mrs. Lovett who becomes an audience favorite the moment she comically bangs her rolling pin in “The Worst Pies in London.” Murphy, then, takes her versatile talents to another level in Act II’s “By the Sea,” where in a jaunty navy-blue swimsuit and zany red sunglasses, she steals the show in an uproarious duet with Elliott’s Todd who, while in a present-but-not-really-listening distracted state, is aggressively swung in a rocking chair. It’s not an overstatement to say that Murphy often has the audience eating metaphorical meat pies out of the palm of her hand.

(L-R) Joanna A. Jones, Amber Liekhus, and Cassandra Marie Murphy in A Noise Within’s production of Sweeney Todd in Pasadena, CA. Photo credit: Craig Schwartz

As the downtrodden and predatorily groomed Johanna, Jones is highly sympathetic and affecting in “Green Finch and Linnet Bird,” when she beautifully vocalizes like an fragile nightingale. This innocence is matched by Everts’s Anthony who is immediately enamored with his damsel in distress, pulling on heartstrings amid the wistful “Johanna” and “Kiss Me.”

Rabb is the adversarial and top-hatted Judge Turpin whose eradication from Earth is Todd’s ultimate goal. Rabb’s razor-sharp characterization gets across how tyrannical evil comes in many unpredictable forms, including those who are oblivious to their misdeeds by either being misguidedly well-intentioned or outwardly charming. Turpin’s right-hand man, Beadle, is similarly depicted with grayer undertones by Harrison White whose moral compass has been led astray by a warped authority.

(L-R) Geoff Elliott and Cassandra Marie Murphy in A Noise Within’s production of Sweeney Todd in Pasadena, CA. Photo credit: Craig Schwartz

In addition, Amber Liekhus astonishes with an operatic mania as the Beggar Woman with a flabbergasting past. A Noise Within stalwart Kasey Mahaffy exudes a mountainous charisma as the green coat-tailed and Italian accent-forged Pirelli — portrayed as a braggadocious ringmaster — with a faux cure for baldness. In a musical with myriad zeniths, Mahaffy’s interpretation of Pirelli is worthy of a spontaneous applause as is his underrated take on Fogg, the malicious owner of a nearby insane asylum which temporarily houses Johanna. The final principal performer is Josey Montana McCoy who, as Pirelli’s naïve assistant Tobias, curries sympathy as one who is teased with overturning his life’s purposelessness before it envelops him.

Joanna A. Jones (sitting on ladder) with James Everts, Harrison White, and cellist Karen Hall in A Noise Within’s production of Sweeney Todd in Pasadena, CA. Photo credit: Craig Schwartz

The scene and properties design by Francois-Pierre Couture and Stephen Taylor, respectively, are immaculately designed, aligning precisely with what a gloomy and grimy Fleet Street would appear as — along with some minimalist elements such as muted colors, strewn rags, rows of well-worn theatre seats, ladders, as well as other set pieces (such as Todd’s barber chair) which are moved to and fro on wheels. Latticed steel grates on stage imply a meat grinder and large-oven bakery below — an allegorical nod to an underworld of the unspeakable betwixt kneaded dough.

There is, undoubtedly, a volatile oscillation between a pyretic boil and risible relief. Reflecting this overarching insanity is a Greek chorus-reminiscent ensemble who, with a rancorous redness around their eyes and disheveled hair (the on-point makeup and wig design are by Tony Valdes) punctuate each hair-raising development with an animatedly ominous delivery. The crazed company lurks as Todd eliminates enemies and indiscriminately sacrifices his white-caped clients as blood-curdling screams are heard in tandem with unmistakably crimson materializations (expressive lighting is by Ken Booth).

The ensemble in A Noise Within’s production of Sweeney Todd in Pasadena, CA. Photo credit: Craig Schwartz

Despite its macabre material, one never feels overwhelmed by the presentation of this Sweeney Todd, which takes a wholly utilitarian approach, catering to observers who find themselves more than sated. This also extends to Sondheim’s iconic numbers where music director and pianist Rod Bagheri, fellow pianist Christopher Smith, and cellist Karen Hall — as a humble trio — impressively resound like a full orchestra.

As Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street continues to amass popularity as an ahead-of-its time, cutting-edge musical — propelled by the enduring 2007 Tim Burton film and productions aplenty, including the current Sutton Foster-starring Broadway revival — A Noise Within has winnowed out the excess right down to the essentials of what makes the Sondheim masterpiece work.

(Standing to the left) Josey Montana McCoy and Cassandra Marie Murphy with the ensemble in A Noise Within’s production of Sweeney Todd in Pasadena, CA. Photo credit: Craig Schwartz

At its heart, Sweeney Todd explores the terminal cost of even the most righteous and ambrosial payback. A Noise Within’s version serves up revenge not as a typical cold dish, but as one that is sizzling hot.

A Noise Within’s production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street runs through Sunday, March 17th. For more information and tickets, visit anoisewithin.org.

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