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The Dartmouth
May 21, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Dark nature of 'Sweeney Todd' pleases audiences

A giant curtain filled with the diagram of a blood-soaked barber's chair falls to the stage. Out comes a gritty chorus, singing about the Demon of Fleet Street, Sweeney Todd, and his killing streak. Dark would accurately describe the performance of "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street."

Fantastic would also be very appropriate. The student performance was superb, equaling some of the professionally produced musicals found in large cities. The Stephen Sondheim operetta matured to the peak of its chilling glory here at Dartmouth under the direction of James Lucas.

A complex and expensive set, a flawless orchestral performance and fantastic singing combined to provide the audience with a view of London, circa the last century, in a way not often thought about.

Sweeney Todd, played by Matthew Welander '97, is a barber possessed by demons, whose story slowly unfolds during the course of the operetta. After escaping from a prison colony, he is rescued at sea by a charming yet naive sailor, Anthony Hope, played by Marc Bruni '99 (also by Matthew Gordon '98 on alternate nights).

The pair return to London, where Hope falls in love with a girl named Johanna, played by Barbara Umlauf '98 (and Ainsley Ryan '00 on alternate nights).

Johanna is the ward of Judge Turpin, performed by Thomas Farley '98, who desires to marry the young girl. Turpin is aided in all his exploits by The Beadle, Jason Fleming '98. Johanna is, by a twist of fate, Todd's daughter, and was "adopted" by Turpin after he and The Beadle conspired to send Todd to prison.

Why would the pair want to dispose of Todd? Turpin originally lusted after Todd's wife and decided the easiest way to have his way with her would be to remove Todd from the picture. After driving Todd's wife insane, Turpin adopts the daughter, Johanna.

Failed attempts to lure Turpin and The Beadle into his new barber shop leave Todd to seek his vengeance elsewhere. After his landlady, Mrs. Lovett -- played by Lizabeth Roberts '00 (and Vanessa Pierce '98 on alternate nights) -- suggests using the bodies in her meat pies, Todd goes on a killing spree.

The finale finds everyone dead except Johanna and Anthony Hope, each character a victim of their own desires, as well as Todd's razor. Vengeance, love and hope combine in less than optimistic ways, accompanied by the brooding sounds of Sondheim's score.

Within this despair one can find pointed commentary about English class relations, male-female interactions and basic human needs. Sondheim layers political theory with revenge and passion with domination. From the sleaze of Turpin to the almost pristine goodness of Hope, the range of characters is dynamic and entertaining.

The orchestra and singers, under the direction of Louis Burkot, produced excellent music, ranging from light and irreverent in Mrs. Lovett's comic solo "The Worst Pies in London," to dark a brooding in one of Todd's somber solo numbers, "My Friends."

The show is playing at the Moore Theater in the Hopkins Center for the Performing Arts and continues through the Green Key weekend. For those who are well acquainted with musicals, "Sweeney Todd" will be surprisingly different. And for those who have yet to experience a good musical, this show is a must.