Up close and chilling: a small-scale Sweeney Todd for our time, from the Plain Janes

Sheldon Elter and Kristi Hansen in Sweeney Todd, Plain Jane Theatre Company. Photo by dbphotographics

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd/ He served a dark and vengeful god….”

Starting Friday in a small and intriguing downtown space (CO*LAB), up close enough to smell blood, Plain Jane Theatre brings us a small-cast chamber revival of Stephen Sondheim’s grisly and glorious 1979 musical masterpiece.

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In the 60-seat house we’ll be virtually eyeball to eyeball with “the demon barber of Fleet Street,” the escaped convict of 19th century penny dreadful melodrama fame — a tonsorial pro who returns in a murderous rage from unjust exile to exact his revenge on the corrupt judge who’s destroyed his family and his happiness. There he’ll be, Sweeney Todd, with his trusty razors and his resourceful accomplice Mrs. Lovett, who — waste not want not — bakes the corpses of his murdered clients into meat pies.

As Sondheim himself explained in Finishing The Hat, the first part of his wonderful two-part musical diary, he was a big fan of horror stories and horror film scores, like Bernard Hermann’s for Hangover Square. And Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was inspired by chancing upon Christopher Bond’s version of the period melodrama in a little black box London theatre, played for comedy. 

As director Kate Ryan says of her eight-member Sweeney Todd cast — led by the husband and wife team of Sheldon Elter and Kristi Hansen as the unwholesome couple — “we can really lean into the characters of a piece that Sondheim had always intended to be intimate, small, connected to the audience….” One location, minimalist, small chamber musical dimensions: “it totally works in a Janes sort of way. ” 

Intimate, small … two adjectives that, along with ‘minimalist’, are music to Plain Jane ears. The Broadway premiere, directed by Hal Prince, had a cast of two dozen or more and the massive factory design onstage. But since then there have been ingeniously small-scale stagings, including John Doyle’s 2005 staging in which the cast (led by Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone) also played instruments, and an eight-actor 2014 English production that happened in London’s oldest pie-and-mash shop.

As Ryan explains, the setting of the Plain Janes Sweeney Todd is contemporary, the lunch room in a meat-packing plant. “We wanted a place near blood, inspired by stories of meat!” she says cheerfully. Says Hansen, “the workers have decided to tell the story,” and they grab what’s at hand to assist them — hats, gloves, hairnets, blades.

In this enterprise they have a real-life meat consultant in the person of Sweeney Todd himself. Elter worked in the meat department at the IGA in Peace River from the time he was in Grade 7 to his second year of college. “It was a good job,” he says with a grin. “Lots of blood, bone dust, cuts, stitches….” And the young Elter was on an upward career trajectory. “I started as a cleaner, moved up to grinding hamburger,” and first aid courses later, “eventually I started to learn how to cut meat.” The bosses wanted to send him to a certification course, but in the end (luckily for theatre audiences) “becoming a butcher wasn’t really what I wanted to do with my life.” 

In this late-pandemic “I knew I needed to challenge myself,” says Ryan of the first complete Sondheim she’s directed in a career of bringing musicals of every size, shape and profile to the stage. “And I always knew that at some point I needed to work on Sondheim…. The work is always ongoing. You never feel like ‘Oh, we nailed that!’. I knew we’d be constantly learning about this piece,” incidentally one of only two of his musicals initiated by Sondheim himself (the other is Passion), as she points out. 

“His characters and their relationships are complex, messy, driven by huge passionate desires…. What Sondheim has done for all of us is to celebrate all sides of the human experience, the dark, complex, demanding sides. Sweeney Todd is a piece about obsession, revenge. And how we all have those feelings in us.” 

“AND he’s funny, witty, he’s made us laugh at ourselves, our faults, anxieties, doubts,” says Ryan of the particular achievement of Sondheim in “riding the line between horror and hilarity” in Sweeney Todd. “And he puts it in a strong, strictly structured musical platform. It’s cathartic but it feels safe.” Ryan revisits “safe,” and laughs. “Safe, but it’s so hard, so musically difficult!” 

She particularly appreciates the collaboration with musical director Shannon Hiebert, who spends most of her time in the opera world. And the cast includes a mix of veteran musical theatre talents (like Josh Travnik as the Beadle and Vance Avery as the Judge) and newcomers, some with opera specialties. “We’re all learning from each other,” says Ryan “I love when worlds collide!” 

“I love the idea of overwhelming the audience,” says Hansen of the intimate CO*LAB venue where that collision happens. “The show is swirling in the space. And we are an ensemble of storytellers.”

Elter and Hansen have been in Plain Jane musicals before now (It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane It’s Superman for the former, Fiorello! for the latter). Sweeney Todd was gold star “bucket list,” says Hansen. “And “a chance for us to get to do this together” was the capper. 

They’ve been in casts together, Freewill Shakespeare Festival productions in the park among them. But not since Romeo and Juliet in 2006 have they been in leading roles directly with each other. They’re amused by the idea of Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett as the natural follow-up to their Romeo and Juliet.

Elter comes to Sondheim after a Dora Award-winning performance in Where The Blood Mixes in Toronto (“one of the most incredible, rewarding experiences of my career!”), and the pairing of Queen Goneril and King Lear at Soulpepper. Hansen is the producer of the Maggie Tree production of The Wolves just ended at the Citadel. 

Like Ryan, they’re struck by the aptness of Sweeney Todd and the Industrial Revolution setting of the original tale for our own moment in history. “Hard-done-by people struggling to live,” says Hansen of the rapidly receding sense of the human community. “‘It’s man devouring man, my dear’,” says Elter, quoting Mr. Todd’s interjection in Mrs. Lovett’s show-stopper A Little Priest.

“There’s something indelibly wrong right now, a society pushing back in human rights,” says Ryan. “The (new) industrial age has dehumanized people, and has turned us against each other.” Is authority inherently corrupt and self-justifying? “We’re seeing our own systems that protect us are turning against us. Even in Canada…. Something needs to change; voices need to be heard.”

“What happens if they’re not, if there’s no action? What drives us to the razor?”  

“It’s not a case of the good guy wins,” as Ryan says. “Anyhow, who is the good guy? Who are these people? There’s a Sweeney in all of us. There’s a Lovett in all of us.” 

PREVIEW

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Theatre: The Plain Jane Theatre Company

Written by: Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler based on the play by Christopher Bond

Directed by: Kate Ryan

Starring: Sheldon Elter, Kristi Hansen, Vance Avery, Josh Travnik, Erin Selin, Aran Wilson-McAnally, Jacqueline Hernandez, Mark Sinongco

Where: CO*LAB, 9641 102 A Ave.

Running: Nov. 11 to 20

Tickets: at the door or  tickettailor.com

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