BareStage’s ‘Sweeney Todd’ entertains yet lacks technical polish

Derek Remsburg/Staff

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Nineteenth-century London — that grimy, Industrial Age time — is frequently dreamed up in novels and films as a place of chimney smoke and dark alleys, rogues and street urchins. In short, it’s a dog-eat-dog world. This is literalized in the BareStage Productions’ “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” which opened this past Friday on campus.

The pervasive corruption in 1846 London drives characters mad, in “Sweeney Todd.” As the titular barber (Alex Bonte with rich baritone and morose portent) declared by the end of the first act, his throat-slitting atrocities merely reflect the inhumanity of society: “It’s man devouring man, my dear, and who are we to deny it in here?”

Murder and cannibalism are dishes best served dark and dreary, and BareStage Productions, an on-campus student-run theater group, thoughtfully crafted a performance faithful to the musical’s grungy vision. It’s to the detriment of the production, however, that the show was frequently hampered by awkward staging in the spatial confines of the Cesar Chavez Student Center.

To perform “Sweeney Todd” in the Student Center’s basement is both an inspired and technically problematic choice. On one hand, to descend underground added claustrophobic atmosphere to the plot’s medley of revenge and insane asylums. On the other hand, the oddly-shaped stage that runs in front of, amidst and behind the audience led to strained necks attempting to gain unobstructed views of the action.

The small space, in which the orchestra can overpower voices, is unfortunate, especially with the promising talents of the cast. Given the limited resources of student productions, the show was refreshingly well-cast and directed by Andrew Cummings. The entire ensemble was enthusiastically zombielike and awkwardly cramped onstage, but composer Stephen Sondheim’s dissonant melodies led the chorals to soar.

Acting-wise, disturbing plot elements were handled well — balancing the seriousness of violence with a dose of camp. Judge Turpin (Adam Niemann), the corrupt judiciary who had exiled Sweeney and raped his wife, embraced a tricky role involving self-flagellation and quasi-incestuous love for his ward, Johanna (who is Sweeney’s daughter). Johanna, who is written as a blandly innocent blonde siren, was sung by Marisa Conroy with a knowing-wink at the shrillness of her lines.

“Sweeney Todd” is a play that rewards the bad guys. While Anthony (a sincere Grant Genske) is left to somberly pine for Johanna, no character has as much fun as Beadle Bamford (Matthew Thomas). An effeminate, smooth criminal, Thomas was a riotous scene-stealer when aiding the Judge’s nefarious plans.

The night’s high note was found in the musical’s famous song about cannibalism, “A Little Priest.” Mrs. Lovett (an amoral, practical Christina Wright) and Sweeney find casual comic timing in darkly humorous word play on solving two problems: hiding corpses and turning a profit with meat pies (hint: the prior leads to latter).

At times sensationalistic, other times brutally tragic, the musical portrays human nature’s animalistic impulses. BareStage Production’s rendition is rough around the edges, with some technical hiccups in lighting and set the night I attended, and relies on the story’s bone-chilling twists. The BareStage performance was entertaining due to the cast’s energy and the catchiness of Sondheim’s dark showtunes, but the lack of technical polish leaves the appetite unsated.

Deanne Chen is the lead theater critic.