Theater note: ‘Sweeney Todd’ is not for the squeamish


There’s a reason I don’t go to horror movies. Even mildly eerie Twilight Zone reruns keep me up at night. That’s because film cameras put you right into the scene, with your back to the psycho. You’re defenseless. And when you can see the eyeballs of the perpetrator as if you were the one chained to the tree while he warms up the electric saw, you’re getting too close.

Therein lies the beauty of live theater: you’re one step removed from that in-your-face grittiness. During intermission, you can stand and stretch, and stare at that guy across the aisle who always shows up at arts events and wearing that purple velvet blazer. Once you’ve seen that, you feel normal again. Like you’re ready for the second act.

Still, Stephen Sondheim’s “musical thriller” Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street scared me. It’s about a London barber, Sweeney Todd (David Hess), who gets locked up for a crime that he didn’t commit, and who subsequently executes barbershop patrons out of pure, powerful rage.

The plot gets more twisted when we learn what pie shop owner Mrs. Lovett (Tony Award-winner Judy Kaye) has done to ensure that she remains Sweeney’s sole object of lust. Yes, she chops up the bodies of his victims and puts them in pies, but it’s not until the end of the play that we understand how calculating she has been.

I found myself fidgeting during Act I because the music is atonal and there’s too little action. It’s a long, slow setup of the story line, as if director John Doyle is drawing back the spring on a pinball machine. But the payoff is immediate in Act II, and we, the audience, are catapulted like a steel ball into a pitted world of macabre insanity.

Each time Sweeney Todd executes a victim, the stage lights turn red and a sickening screech of reed and electronic instruments pierces the darkness.

There are moments of black humor, too, as when Mrs. Lovett rhapsodizes on her dream life with Sweeney. “I’ll knit a sweater while you write a letter, by the sea,” she sings, while polishing a meat cleaver and other utensils used to butcher people for her pies. And the clever puns about how a lawyer or an “actual shepherd” might taste in a pie (“God, That’s God!”) are hilarious.

Every cast member’s performance is superb in this touring Broadway production, where each actor not only sings, but plays at least two different instruments. Particularly impressive is young Edmund Bagnell, a recent NYU grad, who plays Tobias (and the violin). He’s an actor to watch. I was reminded of the Broadway hit Avenue Q, in which actors also sing and work their puppets, and I’m thinking it must be difficult to land a part in a musical these days, with standards set so high.

Speaking of vertical endeavors, there are plenty on the set of Sweeney Todd. The piling of objects and the clambering of cello-lugging actors onto teetering chairs atop a huge, black coffin serve to heighten the suspense. It made me nervous—a sensation I enjoyed, given the context. I’ll even forgive the State Theatre for its claustrophobic seating just this once. Sitting slightly askew to avoid my neighbors’ elbows and knees kept me appropriately on edge.

I’m sure I’ll relish the comfort of movie house seats when I see the movie version starring Johnny Depp next week. Also, I’m bringing a teddy bear. And a blindfold. It’s that scary!

Even if you’ve already seen the movie, Sweeney Todd is well worth seeing on the stage. It’s here for only a one-week run, so tickets online grab your right now. $27-$67, through February 10 at State Theatre, 8th Street and Hennepin, downtown Minneapolis.

Anne Nicolai ( lives, works, plays, and blogs about arts and culture in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Visit