Theater Review: Sweeney Todd @ VCU Theater
It is a really bizarre to experience a play adapted from a musical. Musicals have a campy feel to them, and the plots they revolve around are usually a little daft. The story and emotional content of the piece–humor, pathos, love, anger–are communicated through the words, music, movement, and the technical aspects of the entertainment. The themes and communication are symbiotic.
Sweeney Todd the musical spares no daftness in the plot: it’s about a wrongly exiled barber slitting the throats of Victorian England’s corrupt society, and his landlady subsequently cooking them into pies. The story was originally set in the form of British “penny dreadfuls;” a weekly horror story pamphlet that told a series of stories in snippets, and aimed at a young adult audience. I think the writer, Christopher Bond, did a great job adapting this ephemeral way of storytelling, and its innate quirkiness, into the play.
Right off the bat, the artistic compromises of losing the music from the musical became clear. All the songs are spoken theatrically. This, however strange it might be for a big fan of the musical, brought out a really strong element in the play–the acting. Shane Moran, playing Sweeney Todd, did a great job conveying the tortured man that Todd was. You really have to feel for someone to accept that they are a serial killer and retain sympathy, and I felt it. His accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, played by senior theatre major Jessica Jones, terrifically balanced the strange pathos of the two main characters. They were the melodrama and comedy that needed to exist for a play adapted from a musical to work.
The play is dramatic, but is riddled with moments of comedy, which I enjoyed. I think this was done so the audience can feel free to chose how affecting the play is. It was a really nice touch and made a semi-goofy plot seem plausible. It also gave the characters a depth they needed to be affecting. Other bonuses include the stage design, the dramatic scenes involving throat-slicing–which got a lot of applause during the play–and the direction from Barry Bell.
Having said that, I do think the attempts to make up for the absence of music fell a little short. The sound design seemed a little too 8-bit for me. I understand the need to have something in place of the music, but the random sound effects and a not fully original soundtrack–with appearances from Jonny Greenwood’s “Future Markets,” from the There Will Be Blood soundtrack, and a song from the Showtime hit serial killer drama Dexter–seemed too cartoonish. I would have liked to see them take out all elements of sound and make it work as a play. The added sound resulted in a weird hybrid between a musical and a play, which didn’t quite work. I found myself thrown out of the magic of the play in these instances. But they were far and few between and never took me so far out that I couldn’t return.
Overall, I enjoyed Theatre VCU’s Sweeney Todd: The Play. It felt a little rushed, and the sound could have been better implemented, but the acting, stage design, and juxtaposed bits of horror and comedy were all very pleasing. Theatre VCU put together a smart play that could have very easily gone wrong. For that reason, I think fans of the musical should go out and see the unique experience Theatre VCU has put together.
On opening night, both “Sparks” are put on trial with their fates decided by the audience in a “Choose Your Own Adventure” style finale.August 28, 2014
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