With Sensational “Sweeney Todd,” Padgett Productions Puts on a Bloody Good Show

Cori Weber and Patrick Lewallen in “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” (Courtesy of Padgett Productions.)

Even if you’ve never attended, surely you know the tale of Sweeney Todd, the barber whose clients keep disappearing…into the delicious meat pies served up by his associate, Mrs. Lovett. For nearly two centuries, the killer coiffeur’s legend has only grown, from its penny-dreadful origins, to poetry and melodrama, to stage and screen, and, of course, to the late, great Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which debuted on Broadway in 1979.

Now, it lives again, at Kansas City’s Warwick Theatre, which Padgett Productions’ adept design team has transformed into Sweeney’s dreary, eerie Victorian London. With consistently stellar performances, under the co-direction of Nick Padgett and Phil Kinen, this ambitious rendition of Sondheim’s Tony-winning tale is certainly one to attend—authentic, haunting, and beautiful, with a bit of gruesome fun baked right in, and enough chills to cut through the midwestern summer heat.

Considered by many Sondheim devotees to be the master’s masterpiece, Sweeney Todd is much more than melodrama, elevated by a decidedly operatic score. Sondheim and book writer Hugh Wheeler based their adaptation on British playwright Christopher Bond’s 1973 play of the same name, which endowed the demon barber with a sympathetic backstory: wrongfully convicted years earlier, he has escaped an Australian penal colony and returned to London, only to discover that the evil judge responsible for his sentence has since assaulted his wife and adopted his daughter. Sweeney’s understandable lust for vengeance ultimately spirals into a bloodthirsty loathing for all humanity. “What happens then, well, that’s the play,” as the Prologue goes, “And he wouldn’t want us to give it away.”

As Sweeney, Patrick Lewallen is a powerful presence—somber and short-tempered, with a smirking-Russell-Crowe vibe, but a rich, dexterous voice worthy of the score’s lyrical and operatic demands. He also finds the nuance in the aggrieved barber’s pain—a demon battling demons.

Yet this show hinges on the performance of Mrs. Lovett, whose spunk and spontaneity critically must balance out the brooding and blood. Cori Weber is sublime—every bouncy note is as delightful and precise as her cockney dialect (and it’s no small feat to pull off both at the same time). Considered along with her spot-on comic timing, it’s tempting to compare Weber to the role’s famous originator, Angela Lansbury (and I just did).

Patrick Lewallen and Cori Weber in “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” (Courtesy of Padgett Productions.)

Supporting the two killer leads is, well, a murderers’ row of vocal talent, without a weak link among the principals. In particular, Tom Nelson (as Anthony, the wide-eyed sailor who has rescued Sweeney from sea as the tale begins) and Karen Blackmon (as Johanna, the sailor’s new love and the barber’s long-lost daughter) deliver more than one “wow” moment, as does Ashley Young, in the recurring role of Beggar Woman. Matthew Harris squeezes an unexpected amount of charm from the despicable Judge Turpin. And Matthew Henrickson (as the pompous rival barber Pirelli) and Alec Bridges (the young lad who becomes Lovett’s devoted charge) provide some additional comic relief, and much more.

The cast plays well with the piped-in music, which is remarkably rich and resonant (music direction by Tim Braselton; sound design by Mark Johnson), though the unmic’ed voices of the ensemble are occasionally lost in the Warwick’s open expanses.

Lighting effects by Zan de Spelder bring an always-around-midnight feel to Kelli Harrod’s bi-level set, highlighted, in Act II, by a specially constructed trap-door barber’s chair (by R.J. Parish). Fran Kapono-Kuzila impressively costumes all two-dozen-plus players in what might be described as ghostly Victorian style—and kudos, too, to the uncredited makeup artist(s).

All in all, this 21st-century production of a 20th-century classic (based on a 19th-century legend) isn’t particularly innovative, just soundly done and wholly satisfying. And right now, what better way to see live theater come back to life—with a vengeance.

“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” a production of Padgett Productions, runs through June 26 at the Warwick Theatre, 3927 Main Street. For more information, visit www.padgettproductionskc.com.

Victor Wishna

Victor Wishna is a Kansas City-based playwright, writer, author, editor, and commentator, among other things.

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