THEATER REVIEW: “Sweeney Todd” @ Blank Canvas Theatre by Roy Berko

Through Sat 3/10

Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the music and lyrics for Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which is now in production at Blank Canvas Theatre, is noted as a brilliant lyricist. Interestingly, that is not the way he sees himself. He is well-trained as a musical composer, having from a young age been the prodigy of Oscar Hammerstein II. Yes, the composer of such mega-hits as OklahomaSouth Pacific and The Sound of Music.

Sondheim was in his mid-20s when he wrote the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy. He quickly gained a reputation for writing pure rhymes, clever twists on phrases, and character-describing songs that fit perfectly into the plot.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, or, as it is better known, Sweeney Todd, was written in 1979. Known as a musical thriller,  it is based on a 1973 play by Christopher Bond and won the Tony Award for Best Musical Play.

The score, probably one of Sondheim’s most complex, is filled with intriguing harmonies and counterpoint. Because most of the dialogue, about 80%, is sung, many consider the piece as an opera.  The brilliant list of musical numbers includes the beautiful “Johanna,” the delightful “The Worst Pies in London” and the heart-wrenching “Not While I’m Around.”

The story, centering on obsession, tells the tale of Sweeney Todd (formerly Benjamin Barker), who was exiled to Australia by Judge Turpin, a ruthless judge who lusted after Todd’s wife. It is now 1846, many years after the now renamed Sweeney Todd’s exile.

We meet young Anthony Hope and Todd on a London pier. Todd has recently rescued Hope at sea and befriended him. The duo is confronted by a crazed Beggar Woman.   Todd wanders into a meat shop, below his former barber shop, hoping to find out the whereabouts of his wife and daughter.

Mrs. Lovett, noted as the maker of the worst pies in London, tells about the “death” of his former wife. She relates that Judge Turpin, who also has taken their daughter Joanna as his ward, raped Todd’s wife. Todd threatens revenge against Turpin and his henchman Beadle Bamford. Thus the plot is laid for a tale of murder and revenge.

Blank Canvas never ceases to amaze. Performing on a postage stamp-sized stage, tucked away on the 2nd floor of 78th Street Studios, operating on a shoe-string budget, artistic director Patrick Ciamacco and his merry band of performers draw in sold-out houses producing off-beat musicals (e.g., The Wild PartySilenceTriassic Parq and Reefer Madness), folded into such classics as Our Town and Of Mice and Men. The theater often garners Cleveland Critics Circle and BroadwayWorld-Cleveland awards for excellence.

Sweeney Todd is yet another one of those winners. Director Jonathan Kronenberger has used every inch of space to keep the well-paced and intense drama moving along to its blood-drenched conclusion. Patrick Ciamacco’s scene design works well to enhance the action. The vocal sounds and music, under the guidance of Matthew Dolan, are well conceived.

Ciamacco, with his strong singing voice and well-textured acting, makes Todd both grief-driven and revengeful.   “Pretty Woman,” a duet with Brian Altman (Turpin), was nicely sung. Though he lacks the macho leading man presence, Robert Kowalewski is appealing as Anthony Hope. His rendition of “Johanna” is masterful.

Trinidad Snider delights as Mrs. Lovett. Her “Not While I’m Around,” sung with Devin Pfeiffer (Tobias), is emotionally draining, while “A Little Priest” is laugh-inducing. Lovely Meg Martiniez (Johanna) has a fine singing voice. The rest of the cast is excellent.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Sweeney Todd gets a strong and meaningful performance and should please even the most critical of Sondheim aficionados.

Sweeney Todd runs through Sat 3/10.  For tickets go to

[Written by Roy Berko, member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle]

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