There’s a reason the Village Players community theatre in Birmingham has been around for 93 years and their current production of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is as good an example as any. The Tony Award-winning musical thriller, with deliciously grim lyrics and haunting music by Stephen Sondheim, is ideally suited to the Halloween season. So there’s some marketing savvy involved. But it has much more to do with the company’s solid and broad-based skill set. It’s decidedly tricky to pull off the treat that is “Sweeney Todd,” with its unwieldy and dissonant orchestrations, demanding vocals and elaborate (gory) stage action. The Village Players rise to the challenge, and earn the standing ovation they received on opening night.
The plot is already familiar to many theatre-goers, who either know it by its gruesome reputation or because they saw the Tim Burton film with Johnny Depp in the title role. It’s the story of a once naïve man, a gifted barber, who is unjustly sent into life-long penal servitude by a hypocritical judge who lusts after the man’s beautiful wife. The play open as this broken man, having escaped from Australia, shows up in London 15 years later under the name Sweeney Todd. He quickly learns that his wife, left unprotected, was abducted and abused by the judge. When no one would help her, she poisoned herself. Sweeney Todd lives only for revenge. The fact that he is very handy with a razor, and lives above a meat pie shop at a time when animal protein is hard to come by, makes for deliciously diabolical humor.
Director Michael A. Gravame serves this “Sweeney Todd” with a clever garnish of Steampunk – both the set and costume design reflect that distinctly technical approach to 19th century industrial aesthetics. The costumes are fabulous, complementing each other in a deep gem-tone pallet with garish slashes of color and the signature 19th century brass bling. The concept is ideally suited to this story, with its reliance on big-geared meat grinders and a barber’s chair that quickly converts to a mechanized “beef” chute.
Of course, what really counts in any musical—and especially in these daunting Sondheim pieces—is the quality of the vocals and the orchestral accompaniment. For this “Sweeney Todd,” the entire ensemble is outstanding and the principal singers are clearly of professional caliber. Richard Knapp, in the title role, strikes the perfect vocal balance; even his most menacing songs have something sweet about them. In fact, it’s the beauty with which he serenades his “friends,” the sharp razors he employs with such enthusiasm, that makes his voice seem all the more sinister.
Congratulations are in order to the cast of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”: Sweeney Todd: Richard Knapp; Mrs. Lovett: Suzette Shuller; Anthony: Joshua Coates; Johanna: Hayley Boggs; Judge Turpin: Andy Clements; Tobias: Kevin Kaminski; Beggar Woman: Allison McClelland; Beadle Bamford: Joel Mapes; and Adolfo Pirelli: Mitchell Bradley. It’s worth noting that the Ensemble, when they’re not carrying the narrative in those sly Sondheim lyrics, has mastered the choreographed scene changes that work like Steampunk clockwork: Josiah C. Baker, Jeanne Bourget; Michael Day; Rachel Keown; Andrew Lawrence; Samuel Meade; Pamela Plewa; Alison Ristovski; Audrey Sharp; Tania L. Velinsky; and Jim Wolbrink.
Even the orchestra sounds larger and more imposing than something produced by ten musicians: Conductor and Music Director Matt Horn with Amy Condit (Keyboard), Ken Hebenstreit (Reeds), Mark Berger (Reeds), Sharon Reum (Violin), Marinda Jenkins (Cello), Paul Roache (Trumpet), Virginia Cunningham (Horn), Greg Platter (Bass), and Paul Sikorski (Percussion).
This unsettling, totally satisfying two-act musical runs approximately 2.5 hours and includes one intermission. Show dates and times are: October 23, 24, 30, November 6 and 7 at 8 p.m. and October 25, November 1 and 8 at 2 p.m. In addition, there is a special October 31 Halloween showtime of 8:30 p.m. This event includes a pre-show reception complete with drinks, treats, and costume contests—all with a masquerade Victorian/Steampunk theme. Patrons are invited to come dressed in their best Victorian or Sweeney Todd-inspired costumes. Tickets are $20.00 (plus a $1.00 facilities improvement fee) and are available online at or by calling the theater box office at 248-644-2075. The playhouse of the Village Players is located at 34660 Woodward Avenue in Birmingham.