follow us on

Putting (and Leaving) Your Finger In The Pie: A Review Of Sweeney Todd

The third of three Sondheim musicals that are being staged this theater season opens at the Solaire Theater; and Sweeney Todd is one exhilarating, humorous, finger-smacking retelling of a grim penny-dreadful.

Lea Salonga is an utter delight to watch in Atlantis’ retelling of the Stephen Sondheim musical, Sweeney Todd. She may not be the title character, but she makes use of every second on stage to have tremendous fun, let us know it; and play against type with gleeful abandon. Her Mrs. Lovett, sidekick to the Demon Barber Sweeney brought to mind a middle-aged, lovestruck, unhinged Eliza Doolittle who never met Professor Higgins, whose days as a flower vendor have wilted, and is now reduced to baking and selling the worst pies in all of East End London. Caustic, ribald, flirtatious, and downright bitter, she’s ready to grasp at straws just to bring some improvement to her desperate life.

For those who may have forgotten, the story of Sweeney Todd started as a penny dreadful in 19th century Victorian England. These were the sensationalist ‘literary’ pamphlets sold in installments for a penny in public squares during such well-attended social occasions as hangings and executions. Dastardly villains, adventures of highwaymen, exploits of the infamous; these would be the subject matter of these penny dreadfuls. Christopher Bond penned and produced a drama about Sweeney in the early 1970s and was the first to turn the mercurial character into a victim of a miscarriage of justice, and not just some serial murderer. Sondheim was so enamored by this premise that in 1979, he came up with his Sweeney, which he has described as a ‘black operetta’.

Kudos then to Director Bobby Garcia for turning this retelling into a Black Comedy Operetta! He jettisons the Victorian setting and parses down the essence of the musical to storytelling. Much like what we’d do as children around a campfire or late at night, Bobby uses the set of a post-modern abandoned junkyard on the grounds of where Fogg’s Asylum used to stand, to bring forth this recounting of the Sweeney legend. As the Asylum has connections to what transpired in the Sweeney story, it becomes so organic for the Sweeney tale to crop up, and it’s the proverbial ‘off to the races’.

I did mention how Lea is such a delight to watch; but don’t then think that she pulls the rug out from under Jett Pangan as the title character. I’ve not heard Jett’s voice in such fine form as in Sweeney’s first night. His rich, solid baritone notes seemed to linger in the theater air, and almost felt like you could step on them to reach the stage. His was a Sweeney driven to the point of obsession on his mission of vengeance; and there was the anguish etched on his face as plans would go awry with disastrous irony. This is a Jett in complete mastery of his singing and performance.

If there is one scene-stealer in the musical, that prize would have to go to Nyoy Volante and his Pirelli, the local rival of Todd. Switching from over the top English with an Italian accent, to a ridiculous Irish brogue, Nyoy was an utter delight, bringing the house down with his sashaying and every exaggerated movement. And congratulations are in order to the rest of the ensemble cast—they brought their A games, and turned the stage into a phantasmagoric spectacle you couldn’t take your eyes off.

Gerald Salonga conducts, and these Sondheim songs are not only tricky to play, but they’re crazy difficult to sing; so the musical accompaniment is so crucial in leading the singers. The stage design I have already mentioned; and the Lighting was also top notch, helping create atmosphere, and driving attention to particular vignettes happening within the hustle and bustle of a full stage.

All in all, I loved how Bobby turned this Sweeney into a very singular, unique retelling. And as for Lea, we truly missed you as you made your final Exit Stage Right. It was wonderful to have you playing such an offbeat role; and may we have many of those still to come. For the next three weekends, grab your opportunity to catch this superb Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. A bad hair-day to all who don’t heed my advice.

Photos from @msleasalonga