Sheri Flanders is an actor, writer and comedian in Chicago. She is head writer for Choice The Musical, half of the comedy duo Flanders and part of the Infinite Sundaes musical house ensemble. Sheri is a contributor for Chicagoland Musical Theater, a faculty member of the Second City music program and co-owner of Flanders Consulting.
Pictured: Jacquelyn Jones. Photo by Cody Jolly Photography.
By Sheri Flanders
Darkness falls. A haunting organ sounds from behind a ghostly scrim. As the piano, violin, clarinet and cello join in, a hazy mist fills the air. Candlelights flicker in the darkness as the stony-faced actors invite us to attend the tale of SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET, the final full musical by Theo Ubique at the No Exit Café.
Staging a musical this grand is an ambitious undertaking in such a small theater space, but director Fred Anzevino ingeniously splits up the stage into vignettes and uses the aisle, creating an immersive experience that allows the action to unfold around the audience in all directions. This device helps to create a cloying atmosphere, ripe for the actors to exploit as they sneak up on unsuspecting audience members while their attention is directed elsewhere.
The cast is rife with the best voices that Chicago musical theater has to offer. SWEENEY TODD is a music lover’s musical, and listening to the actors expertly execute Sondheim’s complexly gorgeous score is ambrosia to the ears. Phillip Torre is perfectly cast as Sweeney, and his stern countenance and rich, full voice booms ominously, filling the small room with his looming presence. Occasionally, he offers a moment of softness, providing a view through a grimy window of whom Sweeney was before tragedy befell his life.
Jacquelyn Jones is a powerhouse in the role of Mrs. Lovett, one of the most fun roles for a woman in musical theater, and her wicked comedic timing and presence counterbalance the slow, surging mood. Megan Elk is also a riot as the Beggar Woman, and her antics keep the audience in stitches the entire time. John B. Leen is a delight as the wicked Judge, bringing a jolly energy to the very dark role that works very well.
Frankie Leo Bennett creates a wonderfully charming and adorable urchin in Toby, and Kevin Webb steals the show as Beadle, the muscle for the Judge. His every line, gesture and vocalization are perfectly executed, earning him some of the biggest laughs in the show.
Cecelia Iole and Nathan Carroll do a wonderful job with Johanna and Anthony, bringing dimension to roles that are written very thinly. Though the script doesn’t afford them the opportunity to fully show off their acting chops – and it is evident that they are both very capable – they more than make up for it with glorious vocals. Iole is an extremely talented vocalist, and the power of her vibrato can be felt from across the room.
The quality of the performance is one of the best you could see on or off of a large stage, and these are actors whose top-level voices and talent absolutely deserve a large stage. Unfortunately, without the extra spectacle and bells and whistles that come with a full staging, the performance only justifies two hours of it’s 2:30 run time.
The show loses steam towards the end as the vocal score becomes more shrill and intense. It begins to evoke irritation rather than the urgency and dread. This is partially due to fundamental flaws in the play, which is fairly anticlimactic. Director Anzevino needn’t worry about leaning too much on cheap special effects to help keep the interest as things start to lag. This is a musical that can handle bucketfuls of blood and still have you respect it in the morning. And the “Pattycake” monologue delivered by Toby is supposed to be haunting, but it now comes off as trite because the “creepy nursery rhyme” trope has become so overdone in pop culture. A reimagining of that scene and a severe trimming of the last third of the play would turn this production from excellent to perfect.
This production is a crowning achievement and a stellar homage to Sondheim’s poetic lyrics and music. Treat yourself to Theo Ubique’s bloody swan song, SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET.
SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET runs through April 29th. For more information visit theo-u.com.