‘Sweeney’ Slays at Farkas Hall

UPDATED: Nov. 14, 2012, at 3:58 p.m.

“The history of the world, my sweet,” the title character of “Sweeney Todd” sings to his landlady, “is who gets eaten and who gets to eat.”

For some, that message may be hard to swallow. But Sweeney takes that survival-of-the-fittest dictum quite literally, chopping up enemies, informants, and random passersby for his landlady to bake into meat pies. In the hands of director Joshua R. McTaggart ’13 (who is also an inactive Crimson arts writer) and a dedicated cast and crew, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”—which runs through Nov. 18—is a wickedly funny feast for carnivorous theater-goers.

As Sweeney—a barber who returns to London after 15 years of undeserved exile to find that his wife has poisoned herself and his daughter is about to be forced into marriage—Eric Padilla ’14 embarks on a chilling quest to slit the throat of the man behind his misfortunes. Throughout almost every sort of stimulation, from the cries of men as he slays them to the caresses of a woman professing her love for him, Padilla’s Sweeney remains unmoved, his focus fixed only on revenge. Padilla’s one-note performance is unerringly eerie.

Elizabeth K. Leimkuhler ’15 delivers the standout performance of the evening in the role of Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney’s partner in cannibalistic cookery. A flurry of energy with a perfect London accent, Leimkuhler wows in her many complex songs. Giving the most wholly sad performance of the tragicomic show as Tobias Ragg, Alistair A. Debling ’16 ends the musical with a broken, sniveling monologue on a stage strewn with dead bodies. That final, terrible moment is enhanced by lighting design which makes each actor ghostly pale and leaves the set the color of charcoal save only the fierce red mouth of a glowing furnace.

Packed with complicated Stephen Sondheim songs that overlap each other throughout the show, “Sweeney Todd” benefits from the energetic sound of a 13-member student pit orchestra under the music direction of Sam R. Schoenberg ’13. But many lyrics are difficult to make out due to a combination of imbalanced microphones and actors’ poor diction. The chorus that appears between scenes aims to seem solemn, given the gruesome nature of the tale they sing, but often simply looks cowed thanks to hunched shoulders and mumbling voices.

A multi-layered set constructed of jagged wooden beams by Madelynne A. Hays ’13 and Isabel Strauss ’13 is used well throughout the performance, clearly marking off separate spaces like Sweeney’s salon and Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop on the same stage.

Many people die in “Sweeney Todd.” Good people and bad people; people who were targets of murder and those who just stepped in its path; people who perish by gunshot and by burning and by strangulation and of course by barber’s blade. McTaggart left his signature on this production by marking each of those deaths with a shrill alarm and a flood of red light. Some of the murders come after an excruciating lead-up; others Sweeney commits with cavalier suddenness on his riser even as Mrs. Lovett careens around her busy pie shop below. The siren and stained backdrop levels all these tragedies, signifying again and again their common horror.

For all of the production’s impressive technical elements, booming vocals, and darkly funny turns of phrase, the real star of this grisly show about the Demon Barber of Fleet Street is perhaps death itself, that silent menace voiced here in a siren’s blare and served up in a pie.

—Staff writer Julie M. Zauzmer can be reached at jzauzmer@college.harvard.edu.

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