Neptune Theatre opens its 50th season with a dark operatic musical that demonstrates two traditions at the beloved 500-seat playhouse.
The first is its ability to successfully squeeze large-scale Broadway musicals onto its small stage. Former artistic director Linda Moore, who was at the theatre for Friday’s opening night of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, proved the theatre could hold epic shows with her 1994 production of Les Miserables.
The second is the presentation of quality theatre, and this production is pure artistry in terms of music and visual imagery.
Sweeney Todd, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler, is a gruesome combo of Dracula and Les Miz, with shades of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea since it’s from the horror genre, but the artistry is rich and rewarding.
Artistic director George Pothitos has assembled a stunning cast for a show of musical complexity and grandeur. It’s a big sing and it’s a big canvas writ large with human desperation and darkness.
When the ensemble first came out for bows at the end of the show, the opening night audience jumped up for a standing ovation. (This ensemble, which includes young Halifax actresses Ann Doyle, Keelin Jack and Karen Myatt, is finer than most and a vivid part of Sweeney Todd.)
Shane Carty’s rich, fluid baritone flows like a raging river throughout this play as he incarnates the crazed and embittered barber.
This 1979 musical is based on Christopher Bond’s play, which was based on the Penny Dreadful horror story that thrilled those in the Victorian era.
After being unjustly sent to a penal colony by a judge who craved his beautiful wife, Sweeney Todd returns to discover his wife is dead and his daughter a prisoner of the judge. The wronged barber is a tragic figure but his single-minded desire for murderous revenge takes him beyond humanity.
Mrs. Lovett, who has a pie shop beneath Todd’s former barber shop, comes up with the idea of turning Todd’s murder victims into pies.
Shelley Simester as Mrs. Lovett is a scene-stealer in a wonderful, energized performance of this crafty, confident character who treats the twisted details of her life as ordinary. She is the audience’s entree into this horrific world as she holds onto her vision of herself as a respectable business woman with a fondness for the dear Mr. Todd.
A lot of the humour belongs to Mrs. Lovett and the word-play song in which she and Sweeney Todd concoct the idea of human meat pies is a gem — impossible though that may sound.
The only bright light in this Dickensian world is the young couple of Sweeney’s daughter, Johanna, sung in a soaring, pitch-perfect soprano by the blond and glowing Ellen Denny, a recent Dalhousie music and theatre graduate, and Anthony, the sailor who rescued Todd, a handsome and genuine romantic hero as sung by Patrick Cook. The two craft the complex talk-sing duet Kiss Me beautifully. It’s a show highlight.
The music is so key to Sweeney Todd that it’s fitting the musicians are just visible in the shadows playing on the second tier of a three-tier set. Led by musical director and pianist Chuck Homewood, the stirring and accomplished musicians are Tim Elson, trumpet; Isabelle Fournier, violin; Catherine Little, cello; Bradley Reid, clarinet and flute; and Gillian Smith, violin.
The actual killings are done in a blaze of red light, without fake blood, so this version of Sweeney Todd goes easy on an audience who dislikes horror. But there is no redemption in Sweeney Todd, and there is no emotional connection to the characters. It is a bleak view of humanity. You leave the theatre scared, shaken by a beautifully crafted picture of a version of hell.
The strong visual imagery is due to Geofrey Dinwiddie’s barred and bricked set design of a prison and mean city streets, costume designer Helena Marriott’s ragged period garb and Kevin Fraser’s lighting design, key to creating the gloom with dramatic chiaroscuro effects on the chorus. He bathes the lovers in a warm incandescent light.
The ensemble includes Anders Balderston, Robert Murphy and Kyle Gillis. Also noteworthy in the cast are Laura Caswell as the Beggar Woman and Cliff LeJeune as the nasty Judge Turpin.
Sweeney Todd runs by quickly in two hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. This year Neptune has changed its opening time to 7:30 p.m. from 8 p.m. Tuesday to Friday. Weekend times remain the same. The show runs to Oct. 7. (