Chris HewittSt. Paul Pioneer Press September 27, 2015
A song title in "Sweeney Todd" also works as a review of Theater Latte Da's spectacular production: "God, That's Good!"
The most rousing song in the show, it's a comic number sung by delighted people who are unknowingly eating meat pies made with human flesh -- and that's a pretty good metaphor for the complexity of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's musical, which is funny while it's sad while it's terrifying while it's thrilling while it's revealing uncomfortable things about the people on stage and in the audience.
Peter Rothstein's meticulous production for Latte Da takes a traditional approach to the musical set in Victorian England, other than inserting a couple of anachronisms to remind us the inequities of the 1840s are still with us (I'd vote for a few more anachronisms to better establish that idea), but its outstanding cast and attention to detail make for a thrilling theatrical event.
Few experiences are more satisfying in the theater than for a production to show you new things in a show you know well, and that is one of the many pleasures of this "Sweeney Todd."
There's a lot going on in the show but the story is simple: Todd, imprisoned for 15 years for a crime he did not commit, returns to London to reclaim his wife and daughter, only to learn the wife is dead and the daughter is being held captive by the foul judge who sent Todd to jail. So Todd seeks revenge with the aid of Mrs. Lovett, a bawdy baker who has a crush on him and who stumbles upon the idea of using the victims of Todd's vengeance as the meat in her pies.
Let's start with the Mrs. Lovett of Sally Wingert, a monumental performance that theatergoers will be talking about for years to come.
The show may not be named after her, but Mrs. Lovett is the focal point of "Sweeney Todd," a comic character audiences are tempted to embrace -- even though she may be the most thoroughly rotten character because, unlike Todd, who kills out of madness and passion, she kills to get what she wants, in business and in romance.
The defining characteristic of Wingert's Mrs. Lovett is desperation. A woman of a certain age in a society that does not value her, she is used to being invisible -- that, I think is, why she wears one of the few flashes of color in this mostly black-and-white production, and trowels on lurid eye make-up that has gone beyond "smokey eye" to "sooty eye." Wingert locates the heartache behind that invisibility in "My Friends," which is sort of a duet with Todd except Todd is singing to his beloved knives, never once looking at Mrs. Lovett, begging him to love her and trying to force him to see her, reflected in those knives. Wingert's Lovett is uproariously funny but her need is so terrifyingly naked that, for the first time in many productions of "Sweeney Todd," I wondered if she might have had something to do with sending Todd to prison in the first place.
One reason Latte Da's production goes as far as it does in investigating the mysteries of "Sweeney Todd" is that it begins at a high level of intensity. There's no period of getting used to the title character in the musical's opening minutes; Mark Benninghofen has him at a fever pitch of anger from the get-go, to the extent that you may wonder if the production will be able to sustain that intensity, but Benninghofen's choice to have Todd become more reasonable as he gets crazier really works. Meanwhile, Rothstein's design team moves the show along so swiftly and the music, under the direction of Denise Prosek, is so expertly calibrated that the show never does let up.
There's too much good stuff in this juicy "Sweeney," which begins and ends with moments so precisely achieved that the opening-night audience clapped for both, to mention them all. But attention must be paid to: the chilling design of Todd's murders, the full choral sound of the 10-member cast, the powerful (maybe too powerful, since his character is a waif) singing of Tyler Michaels on "Not While I'm Around," the lyrical dignity in Sara Ochs' Beggar Woman and the seemingly casual way soprano Elizabeth Hawkinson negotiates the very tricky "Green Finch and Linnet Bird."
That song, about a trapped bird, functions as a metaphor for all the forgotten characters in "Sweeney Todd," all of whom could yearn, "If I cannot fly, let me sing." The beauty of this production is that it does both: It sings and it soars.
Chris Hewitt can be reached at 651-228-5552 or follow him on twitter.com/ChrisHMovie.
What: "Sweeney Todd"
When: Through Oct. 25
Where: Ritz Theater, 345 13th Ave. NE, Mpls.
Tickets: $45-$31, 612-339-3003 or theaterlatteda.com
Capsule: It's bloody great.