Theater Latté Da’s 'Sweeney Todd': It's spectacular

Pamela EspelandMinnPost

September 29, 2015

Writing about Theater Latté Da’s latest, Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd,”which opened Saturday at the Ritz, requires a big, overflowing bucket of superlatives.

It’s spectacular. It could easily be the runaway hit of this year’s season. Everyone involved – the cast, the musicians and the production team – seems to know they are creating something that people will talk about for years. The energy pours off the stage. Saturday’s audience went crazy.

The story in a soap mug: Benjamin Barker is a young London barber with a beautiful wife and infant daughter. Lusting after Barker’s wife, a corrupt judge assaults her and sends Barker into exile for life. After 15 years, Barker escapes and returns to London as Sweeney Todd, hell-bent on revenge. He meets Mrs. Lovett, a poor pie maker who remembers him as Barker and has held on to his sterling-silver razors all this time. The two end up in business together. He shaves faces and slashes throats; she uses the fresh meat to create savory pies. He awaits his chance to shave the judge. Things end badly for almost everyone.

Under Peter Rothstein’s unerring direction,Mark Benninghofen is simply great as the demon barber of Fleet Street – menacing, ruthless, obsessed – plus he can really sing. Sally Wingert is perfection as Mrs. Lovett, utterly amoral and hopelessly in love with Sweeney Todd in a complex performance layered with subtleties. Tyler Michaels is splendid as simple-minded Tobias Ragg, limping his way across the stage, singing “Not While I’m Around,” a song now used in weddings (which, brief digression, is kind of like Ronald Reagan using Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” as a campaign song).

Sarah Ochs is luminous in rags as the plaintive and crude beggar woman. James Ramlet is stentorian as Judge Turpin, source of Sweeney Todd’s sorrows, with a rumbling bass that rattles the Ritz’s rafters. One look at Dominique Wooten, who plays Beadle Bamford, and you’d think he’s a basso, too, but then he opens his mouth and out comes a gleaming falsetto.

As young lovers Anthony Hope and Johanna Barker, Matthew Rubbelke and Elizabeth Hawkinson carry off the challenging task of distracting us from the main attractions – vengeance, savagery and gore – and leave us with a shred of hope that maybe some people are good after all. Benjamin Dutcher is appropriately loathsome as Jonas Fogg, owner of an insane asylum, and Evan Tyler Wilson shines as Pirelli, whose time as Victorian London’s hippest barber is cut short by Sweeney Todd’s blade.

We often think back on Latté Da’s brilliant, stripped-down “La Bohème,” which lit up the tiny Loring Playhouse in 2005. It’s still our favorite “Bohème” of all time. In that production, a five-piece ensemble – piano, accordion, guitar, violin and woodwinds – did the work of an 80-piece orchestra. When “Sweeney Todd” opened on Broadway, it had a 26-piece pit orchestra. Latté Da’s production has just four musicians: music director Denise Prosek on piano, Carolyn Boulay on strings, Mark Henderson on woodwinds and Paul Hill on percussion. Not that we would ever suggest hiring fewer musicians, but no one makes do with less better than Latté Da.

And what about the Ritz, Latté Da’s new home? Seldom has a theater space seemed more naked, less pretentious and so much about the show – which sometimes spills over into the house, as actors make their way around the side bars, through the center and even into the small balconies. Kate Sutton-Johnson’s perverse playground of a set, complete with wobbly gangplank/bridge, slide, and blazing red oven, is there from the moment you enter; with no curtain, it almost lures you up to explore, do a little climbing and try the slide.

A special shout to sound designer and engineer Jacob Davis. The Ritz is a box with concrete block walls, yet Sondheim’s wonderful lyrics are crisp and clear, even when they’re coming at you a mile a minute and two or more people are singing at once. There were moments on Saturday when things got uncomfortably loud, with a few feedback squeals, but those minor glitches in a major production with lots of moving parts have likely been ironed out by now.

The opening – a blaring factory whistle — almost knocks you out of your seat. (Tip: If you’re holding a drink, set it down a moment or two before the play begins. Friday’s performance started promptly at 7:30.) With intermission, “Sweeney Todd” runs 2½ hours. Through Oct. 25.