In the most romantic of months, there is probably an abundance of happy musicals to which you can take a loved one. This is not one of them.
Everyone’s favorite musical about cannibalism, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” demands a difficult balance between dark humor and tragedy. But this was a task for which the players of the San Jose Stage Company were well-prepared. Though the title of the musical may solely focus upon the demon barber, the audience soon became more enamored with the members of the ensemble than the titular role.
The narrative follows the barber Sweeney Todd (Noel Anthony) as he returns home to London to seek revenge on the judge (Christopher Vettel) who ripped his family apart. With heavy English accents and casual references to eating members of the priesthood, the musical is equal parts macabre and hilarious. This combination only worked to the advantage of the San Jose Stage Company players, as they convincingly turned their relatively modest stage into a convincing rendition of London.
Audience members were simultaneously delighted and terrified to be as close as they were to the small venue’s stage. Yet this unexpected proximity resulted in relative silence from the audience during the early portion of the show. From the musical’s beginning, a hush hung over the audience, despite the well-done musicality of the show’s opening numbers.
This trend came to an end, however, during the first rendition of the popular “Johanna.” Sam Faustine, in the role of Anthony, delivered a heartbreaking and earnest rendition of the show’s most touching love song, his stunning vocals beautifully capturing the emotions of forbidden love.
The lighting during this portion of the show seemed to mirror Faustine’s vulnerability, with one single spotlight capturing the first moments of his song. The lighting’s range swelled in tandem with the emotions of the song — soon, the the entire stage became flushed with light. Once again, a silence followed this song. And then, one audience member audibly breathed, “Wow.” With the musical finally approaching that tipping point, the audience erupted into the first of many thunderous applauses.
Faustine wasn’t the only standout performer of the night. Although the weight of the evening was shouldered by Sweeney himself, a surprising portion of the show’s largest successes came from its supporting characters.
Mrs. Lovett (played by the talented Allison F. Rich) was hilarious to watch, producing a bottomless supply of chuckles from her audience. In the role of a devilish yet delightful pie maker, she provided endless charisma and much needed comedic relief against the musical’s more somber moments.
Another surprising star was found in the relatively small part of The Beadle. Portrayed by Branden Noel Thomas, his falsetto throughout the show was literally one of its high points. Thomas consistently hit notes far above expected with nonchalance, his elegant contributions to songs such as “Quartet” making an audible impact on the audience.
The most bold decision was in the company’s execution of each murder. With the body count in “Sweeney Todd” notoriously high, this production still made each death memorable. Accompanying each fatal stroke from Sweeney’s razor was a piercing, shrill noise off-stage as the set became flooded by crimson-red lights.
Closely following these shocking, sensory overloads, Mrs. Lovett emerges, carrying a bucket of blood. She would pour a streamlined waterfall of the blood before composedly making her exit. This routine ran like clockwork throughout the duration of the show — that is, until a twist of fate occurs.
The line between comedy and tragedy was a thin as a razor’s edge. While there was no happy ending, the amount of talent — and theatrical display of blood — more than made up for the show’s pessimistic conclusion.
“Sweeney Todd” is playing at the San Jose Stage Company through March 18.
Contact Sarah Alford at [email protected].