By Kimberly Rau
Trinity Rep concludes it 2022-23 season with Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” a show several years in the making that ends a strong season with a flourish.
Originally slated to go up in spring 2020, Sweeney Todd was initially canceled because of covid-19. Now, three years later, Curt Columbus and his astounding cast tackle one of Sondheim’s most complex musicals. No surprise, it’s a hit.
Sweeney Todd is known as a “musical thriller,” full of murder and dark turns. It’s the story of Benjamin Barker, sent to prison on a phony charge and back for revenge on the men who took his wife and child from him. He sets up shop in his old apartment, which is located above Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop. Lovett is just as unhinged as the beggar woman who hangs around the London streets asking for alms, or, interchangeably, various sex acts. Barker, now going by Sweeney Todd, appears to be a magnet for crazy. He ignores the red flags and eventually goes into business with Lovett, selling meat pies that are both delicious and of suspicious origin (spoiler: it’s people). Todd seeks revenge on the judge and his beadle, the two responsible for imprisoning him and driving his wife to poison herself. The judge in question has taken Todd’s daughter, Johanna, as his ward, but struggles with his impure feelings towards her. The solution? Marry her, of course, unless the besotted sailor Anthony can spirit her away first, or Todd manages to do him in.
To sum it up, everyone is out for himself, almost no one is entirely honest, and in the end, most of the main characters end up dead. Take that storyline and add a characteristically complicated Sondheim score, and you’ve got the recipe for a memorable evening.
Of course, the cast is impeccable. Trinity consistently attracts the best talent for the shows it chooses, and this is no exception. Erick Pinnick and Rachael Warren as Todd and Lovett are incredibly talented and a great match for one another’s energies on stage. Their Act 1 closer, “A Little Priest,” is particularly funny, and Warren is delightful in “By the Sea,” which showcases Lovett’s blind devotion and blithe acceptance of the duo’s reality (“now and then you could do a guest in”). Lovett is followed around by the simple but devoted shop assistant Toby, played by Alexander Crespo-Rosario II.
Stephen Thorne is a menacing, creepy Judge Turpin, who preys on Johanna (Rebecca-Anne Whittaker) with an unrelenting loathsomeness. Taavon Gamble plays Thorne’s polar opposite as the optimistic and naïve Anthony, showing kindness even to the craziest of beggar women (Myka Cue).
Sophie Zmorrod makes her Trinity Rep debut playing a gender-swapped Beadle Bamford. Zmorrod takes a typically overlooked role and adds a swagger and dominant energy that makes Judge Turpin’s henchman (henchwoman?) a very engaging character to watch. And Kai Thomasini Tshikosi is an over-the-top, very funny Pirelli, a rival barber who attempts to blackmail Todd.
While some shows benefit from new angles, “Sweeney Todd” is not one that lends itself easily to reinterpretation, and director Columbus did not take many liberties with the script, preferring to stick close to the original material. The result is a dark, thoughtful musical with enough levity to temper the worst of the horror while still making its point. Tickets are already getting scarce, so don’t wait to reserve your seats for this one. You won’t want to miss it.
“Sweeney Todd” runs through June 25 at Trinity Rep, 201 Washington St., Providence. Tickets may be obtained at the box office, online at trinityrep.com or by calling 401.351.4242. Masks are encouraged but not mandatory, unless stated for a specific performance.