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Review: Sweeney Todd Delights with Blood, Bondage and Belly Laughs, Idaho Shakespeare Festival debuts macabre summer musical

Boise Weekly, July 10, 2013

by Harrison Berry
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street opens with a chorus of singers, their faces painted and eyebrows arched, waxing on the musical's titular character, who sends his victims “to their maker impeccably shaved.” This bit of wit sets the tone for the enigmatic Todd–played with gusto by Tom Ford in Idaho Shakespeare Festival's production of the musical–whose drive for vengeance is transmuted to comedy by irony in this charming rendition.

Stephen Sondheim's musical centers on a barber sentenced to exile when his wife becomes an object of lust for Judge Turpin (Darren Matthias). When the barber returns, he assumes the name of Sweeney Todd, vows revenge and shacks up with the unbalanced (and unsuccessful) meat pie chef Mrs. Lovett (Sara M. Bruner).

The plot thickens when it is revealed that Todd's daughter, Johanna, is the betrothed of the sneering Turpin; that Todd's only friend, Anthony Hope, is in love with Johanna; and that Todd's rival and would-be blackmailer, Adolfo Pirelli, has been given a Columbian necktie, leading to the dubious innovation of a chute, through which Todd slides his victims down to a bakery where Mrs. Lovett processes them into the best meat pies in London.

It's all executed with a tip of a hat, and many artful quips and puns that won belly laughs from the audience. The music, though not something one would want a significant other humming around the house, is lively and catchy, while the lyrics explore Todd and Lovett's ghastly enterprise.

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Ford and Bruner make a hell of a team. Ford's despondent visage puckers into a glower by the second act while Bruner's wild-eyed infatuation evolves into romantic desperation and insanity. Their gallows humor is livened by a blindness to their respective singular devotions and a large and kinetic cast.

But the highlight of ISF's Sweeney Todd is the props: Todd's shining, silver-handled straight razor and his plush, red barber's chair that pushes his victims down a chute into Lovett's bake house. Add to that buckets of blood and gore, a guffaw-inducing portrait of Todd and Lovett and a basement meat grinder oozing pink human sludge, and the macabre mood is set. The vibe also gets a healthy dose of darkness with Charlotte Yetman's costumes, resplendent with leather bondage-esque attire and glimmering surfaces.

Sweeney Todd is still a tragedy: The machine that sends the corpses to the kitchen ultimately reveals the horror of Todd, Lovett and Turpin's respective monomanias. But the tragedy of the ending didn't dampen the ISF audience, which was thrust out of its seats for applause when the cast took its bow opening night.

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