Portland Center Stage’s Sweeney Todd opens on a homeless camp of folding chairs, burn barrels, and police arrests, immediately peppering a contemporary twist onto the grisly centuries-old tale of haves and have nots. But before I could even consider the question of recession fatigue, the ensemble’s voices rose like a coven of banshees into the chorus of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” and the set and lights came alive with such sinister, artful flourish that I was immediately reduced to blob of quivering flesh in my cushion. And that was just the opening song.
Widely considered one of the greatest musicals of all time (see our preview and slideshow), Stephen Sondheim’s tale of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street reached a mass audience via the Tim Burton movie starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter that, frankly, butchered the show. Depp and Bonham were no match for the nigh operatic abilities Sondheim’s music called for, and Burton’s stylized production in general killed the rich, dark humor that’s the lifeblood of the play. Which only made Portland Center Stage’s production all the more thrilling. Not only was it one of the best musicals I’ve seen in town, but it was actually better than most things I’ve seen on Broadway (granted, I never saw Sweeney Todd).
The story is deliciously macabre: the barber Sweeney Todd returns to London from 15 years in an Australian penal colony to find that the judge who unjustly sent him away has destroyed his wife and adopted his daughter. Wanting nothing but revenge, Todd joins forces with the owner of the pie store below his old barbershop to concoct a most heinous plan involving shaving razors, meat grinders, and pie crusts. If you get it…good, you got it.
Like the perfect meat pie, where the crust has to be light and flaky while the filling is rich and steaming, Sweeney Todd is a play of incredibly complex ingredients and direction. PCS’s concoction was piping hot and irresistible. William Bloodgood’s set design was a dirty warren of industrial brick tenements with multiple levels that magically transformed from pie shop to London street to insane asylum. Diane Ferry Williams lit the set, and the beautiful Victorian costumes by Jeff Cone, with stark gothic-noir lighting that turned downright sinister at times, transforming the ensemble into frightening glowing gargoyles peering down on the stage from staggered hanging platforms. And it was all brought together under the master chef direction of Chris Coleman.
But it would’ve been little more than a stunning crust without performers able to rise to both Sondheim’s music and the story's emotion. Portlander Gretchen Rumbaugh stole the show, playing the pie store proprietor Mrs. Lovett as a batty but charming old widow who whose utter lack of a moral compass is perhaps the darkest element of a soot black play. An incredible character actor, she rolled over her words like marbles, her comic timing impeccable.
Aloysius Gigl’s Todd was the opposite of Depp’s. Playing the barber like a bear waiting to feed, Gigl’s imposing stature and razor sharp brows captured the physicality of a man who survived and escaped a prison colony. Though Gigl seemed a little too brooding at times, his endless staring off into space growing a little one note (but those brows!), he aptly captured the heartbreak that drives Todd to acts of such mad desperation. His performance during “Epiphany”—the point at which Todd cracks from the pain and turns into a monster—was one of the most thrillingly spine-tingling, as Gigl threatened the audience with his razors while singing “they all deserve to die.”
Equally essential to the play’s success, Rumbaugh and Gigl played Lovett and Todd with enough distress and yearning that they won our sympathy for these murderous anti-heroes—to the point that there was applause as Todd dumped the first body down the chute. And they skillfully hit the humor that Sondheim uses to cut the gore, cooking perversely upbeat moments like the song “A Little Priest,” about the various people they’ll bake up—“Here's the politician, so oily/It's served with a doily”—into glorious, belly laughs.
And just as the ensemble reduced me to quivering jelly at the beginning, so it did again and again, surrounding the action like a Greek chorus of apparitions and ghosts—with particular stand out performances by Portlander Eric Little as the simple barker boy Tobias Ragg, and by Martin Hurt, whose operatically beautiful voice turned the Beadle into an unexpectedly sympathetic character.
Though the subject matter should be the stuff of indigestion, PCS’s Sweeney Todd went down like a feast of flavors bright and dark, savory and sweet, gristly and divine. It was a hearty meal of a production I won’t soon forget.