2 min

A tasty last meal?

Bad people spice up Sweeney Todd

HE SLICES, SHE DICES. George Masswohl and Fiona Reid. Credit: Cylla von Tiedemann

A musical that tells us that the world “is filled with people who are filled with shit” risks alienating its audience. A brilliant composer gets away with this when the score is simultaneously poignant, comic, macabre, romantic and genuinely thrilling to listen to. The Canadian Stage production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd represents a thoroughly entertaining execution of a theatrical marvel that has lured audiences into its intricate web for more than 20 years.

The most alluring aspect of the Can Stage production is the presence of Fiona Reid as Mrs Lovett. A first-rate dramatic and comic actress, Reid does not possess the musical range of others who have interpreted the role. Patti Lupone gives a breathtaking vocal performance in the DVD version. But this is where musical theatre holds a very complex position within a general lexicon of musical and theatrical forms.

Director Morris Panych reportedly chose Reid for her acting strengths, something that even the most respected of opera singers often lack, and Sweeney Todd ranks among the most operatic of Sondheim’s works. Reid’s comic timing and her expressive physicality give her rendition a stunning theatrical quality that transcends the need for a highly trained vocalist. She bounces effortlessly across the stage as the lovable, vulgar and delightfully hateful baker who makes mincemeat of men and serves them up to hungry customers.

The large cast is highlighted by George Masswohl as Sweeney and Tyley Ross as Anthony Hope. Masswohl’s characterization is extremely effective as the brooding, murderous barber who procures Mrs Lovett’s pie filling. The technical support, however, seems a little weak as one longs for sharp, violent lighting effects that could have punctuated Sweeney’s extended bouts of demonic vengeance. This is most obvious at the end of the piece when the entire cast sings an epilogue that lacks a powerful final image. Nevertheless, set, costumes and lighting conspire to create an effective and workable environment. A highlight occurs during Mrs Lovett’s song “By The Sea” where simple ensemble choreography and comic costuming provide contrast to thrilling, romantic and murderous escapades.

Other highlights include Mary Ann McDonald as the beggar woman, Damien Atkins as the sinister Beadle and Bruce Dow as Pirelli, all providing delightful vocal twists that add texture to their roles. The entire cast shines in this production and presents a seamless evening of musical theatre. Nevertheless, one cannot help but wonder where the specific visual references of oppressive industrial age that marked the original production have disappeared to? The Can Stage production, although entertaining and technically pleasing, has made Mrs Lovett’s pies and Sweeney’s escapades a little too appetizing.

But that, of course, is a matter of taste.

And although Bertolt Brecht may be rolling in his grave at the unearthly thought of what he called “culinary theatre,” the need to escape is certainly an understandable appetite in audiences worldwide during these treacherous months. As Sweeney says to Mrs Lovett, “The world is made up of those who get eaten and those who eat.”

* Sweeney Todd continues at the Bluma Appel (27 Front St E) until Sat, Apr 19; call (416) 368-3110.