From Plain Jane, Sweeney Todd in close-up: feel the rage. A review

Sheldon Elter (centre) in Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Plain Jane Theatre. Photo by Mat Simpson

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

You don’t want to think too hard about the dark smudges on the tiled wall. Or that loud industrial metallic grinding noise. Or the Please Remove Your Rubbers sign. 

We’re in the spartan break room of a meat-packing factory (designer: Trent Crosby). The bell clangs; the whistle shrieks. And the eight-member cast of Plain Jane Theatre’s chamber-sized revival of Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street arrive fresh from the killing floor — an ensemble still in work smocks and hairnets — to tell a story. A story in which blades and meat figure prominently.

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We’re awfully close on three sides at CO*LAB (a tiny and infinitely adaptable 60-seat downtown arts space). Is it mere fancy to realize that they seem to be eyeing us, appraisingly?

For a decade and a half the Plain Janes have been exploring the musical theatre repertoire in theatrically ingenious (and of necessity) low-budget ways — reclaiming neglected or forgotten gems, re-polishing the tarnished, de-cluttering the over-produced. OR in the case of Kate Ryan’s exciting minimalist production of Sweeney Todd, bringing us into direct contact with an extraordinary masterwork. A year after the great man’s death, Stephen Sondheim’s innovative, grisly (and funny) 1979 marvel of a musical/melodrama/operetta is set before and among us, in a small-scale version with an orchestra of one. That, not incidentally, would be Shannon Hiebert, pianist cum musical director; she has to be, and is, exceptional.  

Eight actors and one piano player and no microphones, in a 60-seat house: it feels personal. 

Built into the Janes archive, too, is a history of match-making: introducing emerging artists and challenging multi-talented theatre veterans in unexpected ways. Both happen in this Sweeney Todd. It’s led by the multi-talented husband-and-wife pairing of Sheldon Elter and Kristi Hansen, as the murderous barber Mr. Todd, a dab hand with the razor, and his resourceful sidekick/accomplice Mrs. Lovett who bakes the deceased into meat pies. And the cast includes young singer-performers; theatre newcomers scouted by the Janes include Erin Selin and Aran Wilson-McAnally as the piece’s young beleaguered lovers.  

Sheldon Elter as Sweeney Todd, Plain Jane Theatre Company, Photo by Mat Simpson

Elter, a charismatic actor/musician of startling range and intensity, arrives on Fleet Street, blade in hand, from an original movement piece (Bears), an Indigenous drama (Where The Blood Mixes), and Shakespeare (King Lear and Queen Goneril at Soulpepper). He extends an already impressive skill set further still, to take on some of the most difficult music in the repertoire as the celebrated 19th century serial killer, in the penny dreadful tale of a raging barber bent on exacting vengeance on the corrupt judge who’d exiled him unjustly 15 years before. 

In Elter, the seething rage of Sweeney’s glare might melt the buttons off your coat at close range. And his fists have a built-in clench; you feel he’s barely holding himself back from flattening someone. He is, as the actor powerfully conveys, a tortured soul, raddled through and through with a sense of injustice that’s become his life-force obsession. You can’t take your eyes off him, and you really shouldn’t.  

Elter is a dexterous singer. True, his lower range is more of an ominous subterranean rumble, but that works too. This is a score that counterpoints the jagged intervals and cross-cut rhythms of Sweeney’s rage (“there’s a hole in the world/ Like a great black pit”) with the unexpectedly lyrical, as in Sweeney’s love song to his razors (My Friends). 

Most recently the star of A Doll’s House Part 2, Hansen crosses a wide patch of theatrical real estate from re-worked Ibsen to arrive at Mrs. Lovett, that exemplary capitalist — Make Something Fleet Street? — with a business plan to not waste the raw materials at hand. Hansen has a long list of distinguished musical theatre and comedy credits, and she’s an agile singer. Still, her singing here will surprise you: she tucks apparently easefully into the macabre black comedy with carnivorous comic zest and outsized good cheer. 

Kristi Hansen and Sheldon Elter in Sweeney Todd, Plain Jane Theatre. Photo by Mat Simpson

The moment that transforms Sweeney’s despair at missing his chance at Judge Turpin’s deserving throat (Epiphany) into rampaging serial murder (“we all deserve to die”) is the very moment that Mrs. Lovett has her own bright idea. And the result is the shared brainstorming number A Little Priest (“we have shepherd’s pie peppered/ with actual shepherd/ on top”), exploring new possibilities in meat pie fillings and arguably the funniest song in the whole musical theatre canon. We hear Sweeney laugh. It’s a highlight.

The throat-slitting rampage — more, more, faster, faster — is stylized (perhaps too much?) to the point of lurid lighting flashes, the swipe of Sweeney’s razor, and the period emptying of metal buckets of blood. 

Sheldon Elter and Kristi Hansen in Sweeney Todd, Plain Jane Theatre, Photo by Mat Simpson

Under Ryan’s direction Elter and Hansen embrace the heightened performance style of melodrama. And so, in a more restrained way, does deep-voiced Vance Avery as the respectable, loathsome and lustful Judge Turpin, that representative of the powerful, privileged upper class and scourge of the working man. His designs on his captive ward Johanna (sweet-voiced Selin), Sweeney’s long-lost daughter, make our fists, right along with Sweeney’s, clench ever more tightly.  

Josh Travnik’s performance as Beadle, the Judge’s vile fixer, is neither gleeful nor greasy, repulsive qualities more usually associated with this vivid character. Here, cold-eyed and expressionless, he seems to be upwardly mobile, aspiring to the upper-crust imperviousness of his boss.

The young lovers Selin and Wilson-McAnally, are fine singers, if not quite the last word in swooning romance. Jacqueline Hernandez, recruited from the world of opera, rises to the joint assignment of the flamboyant Italian scammer Pirelli, and the mysteriously persistant Beggar Woman drawn over and over to Sweeney’s barber shop. Mark Sinongco is genuinely affecting as little Toby, Mrs. Lovett’s bakeshop assistant, in the lovely, unexpectedly affectionate Not While I’m Around. As she admits,  Mrs. Lovett’s maternal side is a little rusty.  

And the whole thing builds dramatically, with revenge as its out-of-control engine, to a tense and horrifying conclusion. It takes theatrical savvy to make that happen with lighting, a few simple props, a setting that’s only suggested, and a doorway, even if it’s to the Great Beyond. Intimacy can be chilling in the theatre. And the Janes have given us a rare chance to savour a great work again, in a moment when rage is building all around us in the world, in frightening ways. 

REVIEW

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: through Nov. 20

Tickets: at the door or  tickettailor.com

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