Idaho Shakespeare Festival’s ‘Sweeney Todd’ makes evil fun with its stylish production

It’s one thing to take on a landmark piece of musical theater, such as “Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” It’s another to turn it into a transformative work of art and that’s what the Idaho Shakespeare Festival achieved Saturday with its production.

Director Victoria Bussert and a cast of 16 actor-singers brushed the cobwebs from the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical as they transported the audience from aghast discomfort in the opening to a dark, blood-soaked revelry by the finale that had them cheering as the lights went down.

Set in a quirky steampunk Victorian London of grimy streets filled with tortured souls and a ghostly chorus that relate the tale. It’s of Todd,  the wronged barber who seeks revenge on the world by slitting the throats of his unsuspecting customers.

It’s raw, gruesome, devilishly funny and unflinchingly honest. Bussert never backs away from the darker realities of the early industrial urban life: the timeless excesses of power, corruption and institutionalized cruelty that fuel the story.

Charlotte Yetman’s costumes, a mix of rich colorful fabrics and modern twists Victorian style, breathe life into the production, as does Jeff Hermann’s purple hued, mechanized set of rotating panels and trap doors. As darkness comes, Mary Jo Dondlinger’s lighting deepens the impact.

Music director Matthew Webb led the orchestra — filled with many Boise Philharmonic players — with a keen musical skill and attention to detail.
Because this is a Shakespearean not a musical festival, the production comes through the doorway of text to the work, which gives it a remarkable clarity of narrative. Not that they don’t have the voices for it; they do and each is used to excellent advantage.

Tom Ford in the title role and Sara M. Bruner as Mrs. Lovett are as delightfully a sinful, bawdy pair of evil doers as you could want.
Turns out that Ford, though mostly a tenor, is a powerhouse baritone. He brings a conscience to his Todd, as he is hollowed out by his own evil deeds and lust for revenge.

Bruner continues to surprise with the depth of her performances. She attacks Mrs. Lovett with lusty avarice and evil genius. She proves herself vocally, handling this extremely difficult and demanding score with near athletic prowess and tender expression.

There are oodles of juicy performances from the cast.
Clare Eisentrout — a spectacular soprano — and Zach Adkins  play the tragic couple Johanna and her valiant lover Anthony. Chris Cowan is the sweet and betrayed Tobias. They all make wonderful ISF debuts.

Jodi Dominick is excellent as the Beggar Woman, who figures into the surprising ending. Darren Matthias revels in his role as the evil Judge Turpin and company stalwart  comic actor M. A. Taylor shows his remarkable vocal range as the Judge’s henchman The Beadle. From the ensemble Mark Hawbecker stands out as the sleazy Italian barber Pirelli and Lynn Robert Berg makes a great demented doctor as Jonas Fogg.

Dana Oland: 377-6442,
Twitter: @IDS_DanaOland

Posted in ArtsBeat