I’m never going to see a better Sweeney Todd than the one I saw tonight from Talk is Free Theatre at the Neighbourhood Food Hub, Glen Rhodes Campus. Wow.
Each night there are just 44 seats available, a cohort providing vaccination documents and masked. It’s a carefully planned show, bringing you into intimate contact with the players and their world, inside a church. I am asking myself how to explain why it’s so good, as it can be described from several different angles, not unlike how you watch the show come to think of it. Yes it’s music and words, great acting, design concept and a brilliant choice of venue. It’s execution of a challenging score led by music director Dan Rutzen, propelled by passionate performances directed by Mitchell Cushman.
44 audience members are sometimes spread around inside the church sanctuary, sometimes we are moved to tight corridor spaces or rooms within the church building. Sometimes we’re downstairs, the players employing the kitchen areas pertinent to the food bank housed on the premises. If you know the plot at all, you’ll recall how apt that makes the space, both for the poverty and the food preparation underlying it. The foodprep factory, with the conveyer from barber’s chair to oven with the overtones of the deadly industrial revolution (as has sometimes been seen in this work particularly in the early productions) was not invoked, in pursuit of something subtler.
You need to be prepared to move, sometimes in the dark, but always carefully led by staff and even cast members. Mrs Lovett spoke to us at one point gently encouraging us to stand out of the way of the traffic flow in one scene change. The blarney coming out of her (!) would do a talk-show host proud, effortless filler not unlike what one finds in a meat pie, come to think of it.
As we did our scene changes (meaning, our moves from one performance space to another) the musicians had to cope with an unending series of segues. We’d begin one place, where perhaps a couple of musicians would discreetly exit, while the other members of the ensemble kept playing. We’d have a kind of vamp until ready happen in our space, as we gradually were shepherded out into corridors and/or down stairs, noticing some of the matching music now coming from the instruments in the new space, vamping away until the scene properly commenced. We might exit from the sounds of piano & cello to arrive in a new location, hearing violin and perhaps keys as well, sometimes percussion generated by the actors. It’s only because I’m a student of this stuff that I noticed at all. It’s very smooth, so self-effacing as to be unheard. Brilliant.
I don’t want to scare you off but there’s something post-modern about this. The church and its performance straddles the boundaries between our modern time and that of the play. Coming in we were asked for money by a pan-handler on the street, in a story that includes a character begging for money on the stage. The church building may not actually be Victorian (likely built in the early 20th century, if I recall the date inscribed on the outside correctly) but when we’re hearing Sondheim’s 20th century score played in this old space, we are amazingly in both places at once. It’s uncanny. They dress in the period costume, they speak with authentic accents, singing a musical style that occasionally offers us something reminiscent of the 19th Century, but sometimes in the soft rock of that American composer on Broadway, Stephen Sondheim. Oh sure it’s his most ambitious score, often dissonant and so difficult that sometimes it gets labeled as “opera”. Opera companies sometimes perform it, although they’d never get the kind of fluidity you get in this intimate show, never seduce you with performances practically in your lap for such a long detailed show.
No you will never be closer to a performance. You have choices in the scene changes, a bit like the choices in a proper smorgasbord. If you are shy? You can more or less hide among the crowd, even though the actors may come striding right up to your location and sing a couple of feet away from your masked face. If you’re bold? Choose to sit closer to the action and you may even be invited to participate a few times. In the smaller spaces there aren’t many options, not when 44 people are being accommodated in a tight hallway, some seated some standing. If we have to stand it’s never for long.
That word “immersive” gets tossed around so much lately, it’s a bit like we’re immersed in immersive. Lepage has his thing, and there are various art things (van Gogh, Klimt, Kahlo) promising yup an “immersive experience”. But this is different. No I don’t really see those artists that way, not wanting those works coming at me from all sides. But first and foremost, there’s a rationale for our space, for the curious reconciliation between centuries, styles. And this play works better done this way. The relentless obsessiveness of the crazed hero bursts out of the heart of this presentation.
While this is a uniformly strong cast, wonderful when the bigger ensembles are sung, there are a couple of outstanding performers. I’m intrigued to discover that Michael Torontow, our Sweeney Todd, who has directed several shows for TIFT, has now been named their Artistic Director.
The play doesn’t fly if you don’t care about the character. Torontow’s Sweeney Todd was a tormented suffering individual, desperately wronged and beyond redemption. One of the immediate benefits of this style is how vulnerable Torontow is, which simply can’t happen when the role is bellowed by a big voice in a big theatre (which I’ve seen a couple of times). This is so much more musical, so much more believable, because it’s on a human scale, clearly audible and intelligible in every sense.
Glynis Ranney was a very entertaining Mrs Lovett, reminding me at times of Carol Kane’s zaney take on the Ghost of Christmas Present in Scrooged, never entirely nice nor nasty but always a deadly brutal mix of both. I couldn’t decide whether I should be afraid or attracted to her. She was arguably the most important ingredient in keeping the tone light, when it was in danger of drowning in blood and gore.
The ensemble was full of talented players. Andrew Prashad was a delightfully slippery Beadle, fun to watch when he was in the Judge Turpin’s shadow, but lovely to listen to when he emerged to take his turn singing solo. Cyrus Lane’s Judge was underplayed, deadpan yet ferocious; his subtlety dodged the risk of melodrama in pursuit of something subtler. Jeff Lillico’s Pirelli gave us an assortment of ethnicities and accents, while Tess Benger was a strong Johanna.
After tonight’s opening, there are only 14 shows left, running until July 3rd. When word gets out the seats will be gone. Even if they extend the run I strongly recommend getting a seat to TIFT’s Sweeney Todd as soon as possible.
If you have any difficulties moving about the show may seem a bit challenging for you. Although I have a permanently stiff neck (arthritis) that didn’t stop me, indeed twisting about to watch the show as the actors moved around us was a big part of the fun. It’s hair-raising.
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