A big dark musical like Sweeney Todd seems an unusual choice for a relatively small theater like Cygnet in San Diego to mount in spring during a recession, but they have made it work.
Sweeney Todd is usually performed with a huge cast that includes many extras, but the mid-decade London and Broadway revivals proved that it need-not-be-so. Those revivals even did away with the orchestra, requiring the actors to play their own instruments. Cygnet has taken the middle ground, choosing an 11-member cast and five offstage musicians. From the thunderous organ prelude and opening lit, literally by candlelight, you don't miss the extra performers.
Is there an Edge reader that hasn't heard this Sondheim classic? Just in case, here's the quick summary. The eponymous protagonist, formerly a barber, returns to Industrial Revolution era London to seek revenge on Judge Turpin, who 15 years earlier wanted Todd's wife for himself and sent Todd to prison on a trumped-up charge. When Todd's chance to kill the judge is thwarted, he declares, "They all deserve to die." He begins to murder customers in his barbershop, which is conveniently located above a meat pie shop, and well, as the lyrics say "what happened then, well that's the play and he wouldn't want us to give it away".
In large cast productions, Todd's shop is placed well above the main stage, allowing the chorus to fill the space below and allowing the bodies to literally fall from his shop to the bake house. Co-directors Sean Murray and James Vasquez and Set Designer Sean Fanning have turned this convention upside down, keeping Todd's shop on a low platform and putting the chorus on stairs and scaffolds. This requires a little more theatrical license from the audience in the final scene but puts more of the action close to the audience, a good trade-off.
As he did with another Cygnet production of a Sondheim show, Sean Murray does double duty as both co-director and actor in the title role. He is magnificently deranged and very chilling when he points his knife at the audience. He had a few minor voice cracks the evening I saw the show, but this may have been because it was the second show of the day. Deborah Gilmour Smyth makes a smashing Cygnet debut as Mrs. Lovett complete with absolutely wild hair. The younger actors are phenomenal. Ashley Fox Linton gives Johanna a sensibility that makes her an equal partner with her love Anthony. Jacob Caltrider plays Anthony with an incredibly strong voice. Mr. Caltrider is becoming a Cygnet regular, turning in a compelling performance in last year's History Boys. Another History Boys alum (who gave the standout performance in that show) is Tom Zohar in the role of Tobias. His interpretation of "Not while I'm around" is positively spooky and charming at the same time.
Cygnet has served up another great production. Have a little feast.
Sweeney Todd continues through May 9 at Cygnet Theatre in San Diego. For more information visit the