Sweeney Todd at A Noise Within

A Noise Within has been taking risks and walking the talk for over three decades. The beloved professional theatre company in Pasadena is taking a break from the usual likes of Shakespeare and classical theatre this spring. Or are they? Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is currently selling out the 324-seat venue. Given this is A Noise Within production, the creative team has not hesitated to take risks and unique twists on the 1979 horror classic.

Sweeney Todd tells the grim tale of a London barber who’s been wrongfully imprisoned for nearly 20 years. He at last escapes with the help of Anthony (James Everts), a young man also headed to London. Sweeney heads home for vengeance on the vicious judge who took his life away, kidnapping his wife and little girl. He soon meets Mrs. Lovett (Cassandra Marie Murphy), a meat pie shopkeeper, down on her luck. She knows just who Sweeney is and where Judge Turpin (Jeremy Rabb) is living with the barber’s now teenage daughter, Johanna (Joanna A. Jones).

Together as a “power couple” of sorts, the barber and baker conjure up a horrific trade. Sweeney can slit the throats of those who have done him wrong under the guise of a “shave.” While Mrs. Lovett can use the bodies for quality meat in her pies. The end goal? To rescue Johanna, whom Anthony just so happens to be in love with.

The Ensemble Photo by Craig Schwartz
Cassandra Marie Murphy and Geoff Elliott Photo by Craig Schwartz

Geoff Elliott, A Noise Within artistic director and co-founder, plays the main and devilish man. He brings many unique elements to the character with much dry, tongue-in-cheek humor. His baritone is strong for the stunning Sondheim score. Murphy’s Mrs. Lovett is a feisty slow burn. Her layers unravel as the show progresses, which is how the performance should be. She didn’t disappoint with her boisterous introduction number, the Worst Pies in London.

I did struggle with both the lead’s dialects. It’s no easy task to master but neither struck me as Cockney. I also felt Elliott’s depiction of Mr. Todd was that of an older, more mature barber. On the always memorable duet Pretty Women, with Judge Turpin, a new direction was taken. Instead of the overly upbeat whistling exchange between the demon barber and his daughter’s kidnapper, Elliott’s Sweeney did not whistle. It was instead a collection of additional hums and the familiar “bum da bum” segment.

Nevertheless, Rabb is a villainous, strong Judge Turpin. As is his equally evil colleague, Beadle Bamford (Harrison White). Both actors gave their all as deplorable men with no good intentions for young Johanna.

Amber Liekhus plays a compelling Beggar Woman. Her voice commands the stage, especially on the riveting City on Fire. The cast utilizes the theater aisles throughout the show which adds to being within their world.

The Ensemble Photo by Craig Schwartz
Joanna J. Jones and James Everts Photo by Craig Schwartz

Everts as lovesick Anthony to Jones’ Johanna shares good chemistry. Their intricate numbers on Kiss Me (Part One and Two) in underscoring dialogue songs highlight Sondheim at his best.

Audience favorites are always Adolfo Pirelli (Kasey Mahaffy) and his trusty sidekick, Tobias Ragg (Josey Montana McCoy). Pirelli is a fellow barber and self-proclaimed miracle worker. He’s created a line for his “magical elixirs” said to regrow hair. His frontman Tobias, a young orphan chap, is always by his side. Tobias takes a liking to Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney; soon becoming an “apprentice” of sorts at the pie shop.

Although I found Mahaffy’s Pirelli a bit underwhelming, McCoy was an impressive Tobias. At first, I was thrown since I had previously only seen young performers play the role. Despite some age, he still depicts the youthful naivete to the part. It was, at times, difficult to decipher the nature of his relationship with Mrs. Lovett. In the story, Mrs. Lovett becomes that of a motherly figure to Tobias. During the lovely Not While I’m Around, I sensed a bit of romance that usually is not present.

Regardless of inconsistencies, Sweeney Todd is still well worth seeing. Director, Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, has created a dark, dreary world for the heinous characters. The creative team has also left plenty of space for interpretation and discussion on mental health. Those on Fleet Street and in Sweeney’s life are unwell people. Nor does Sweeney have anywhere to escape to for the PTSD treatment he needs.

Sweeney Todd plays at A Noise Within through March 17th. Given its mature content, it’s recommended for those 12 and over. Learn more and book tickets HERE.