Ever since it premiered in 1979, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has been a classic among the musical theater community, with countless performances each year, including an Off-Broadway revival that was in performance as recently as February 2018. Now, Denver’s Equinox Theater Company has staged a production at The Bug Theater that runs through October, just in time for Halloween. Still, it might be best to attend the tale elsewhere.
Sweeney Todd tells the story of a 19th century barber who escapes prison and returns to London to enact revenge on the judge who wrongfully convicted him and has taken Todd’s teenage daughter as his ward. He eventually decides to kill nearly everyone he meets, and his partner in crime, Mrs. Lovett, cooks the victims’ flesh into meat pies. The musical thriller features a bone-chilling score from famed composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and a hilariously witty script from playwright Hugh Wheeler. Equinox’s production retains both of those crucial elements in their entirety but is dragged down by awkward blocking and a stiff performance from its lead.
The Bug Theater is an incredibly small stage and while it is decorated quite well by Colin Roybal, who also directs the show, it is on that latter front that Roybal seemed to have trouble. The cast is comprised of nine named characters and five ensemble members. After the opening number, “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” the extras all sit in chairs lining the side of the stage and stay there until the next time they’re needed, two songs later. At that point they stand, do their duty at center stage, and return to their seats. It’s a strange choice that recurs throughout almost the entire play. Perhaps the intention behind this was to make the city of London seem filled with life, but that effect is lost in translation as it just becomes distracting to see extra characters on stage, particularly in the more emotional scenes like when Mrs. Lovett comforts Sweeney as he agonizes about time wasted in prison.
On that same front of bad blocking, there’s a perplexing choice made in which Mrs. Lovett’s underground bakehouse is placed off the stage, right in front of the first row of audience members. While this makes sense as a representation of geographical space of the scene, it doesn’t make sense in any sort of staging. All the action that takes place in the bakehouse is next to impossible to see for anyone sitting beyond the third row. This lack of vision again impedes the emotion and intensity of the show, as the entire end sequence takes place in the bakehouse, which in this case means out of sight.
There are several other bizarre choices that make for an awkward viewing experience, including a distinct lack of props aside from Sweeney’s shaving blades and a few other minor items.
Perhaps the biggest detractor from the show reaching its full, disturbing potential is the performance of Sweeney Todd himself. Played by Derek Helsing, a relative newcomer to the Denver theater scene, Todd can sing all of his notes but lacks enough emotional depth to make the tunes convincing. The role of Todd is an incredibly dramatic one and much of the show’s emotion rides on that performance alone and comes through Todd’s singing. It takes a talented actor to pull off such a role, and while Helsing has the vocal chops to do so, many of his attempts to be standoffish and brooding simply come across as empty and dull. Maybe this would be changed for the better had he had more interesting blocking or something to do during any one of his solo numbers. Instead, the show seems content with letting him just stand there.
The unfortunate thing is that this performance, aside from being in the literal spotlight, is further shown to be lackluster when set alongside excellent performances from the rest of the principal cast, including particularly standout work by Mrs. Lovett (Emily Ebertz) and a gender-flipped female Beadle Bamford (Katie Burdette).
Still, for those unfamiliar with the story of Sweeney Todd, Equinox’s production could be a good starting point, but should not be the only source of contact with such a famed and influential musical. This flawed production runs for four more performances, and while aptly an in-expensive theater-going experience, it might be best to watch the 1982 Broadway recording or 2007 Tim Burton film for a more immersive telling of the tale.