REVIEW: Cygnet’s ‘Sweeney Todd’ is powerful, mesmerizing

Christopher Bond’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” has been on theatrical stages since 1973. The story gained notable recognition when the 2007 film won the Oscar for Best Achievement in Art Direction and was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Achievement in Costume Design and Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role for Johnny Depp. With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Hugh Wheeler, the Broadway play won several Tony Awards in 1979.

Cygnet Theatre Company’s production of “Sweeney Todd” is astounding. Taking on a story of this dark caliber and suggestive gruesomeness could have ended up a mess, but co-directors Sean Murray and James Vasquez have immersed the show with an exceptionally talented cast and a beautiful musical score that accentuates the cast’s talented voices.

The weird organ music that begins as the theater doors close immediately alerts the audience this is no normal story. The play opens as Benjamin Barker (aka Sweeney Todd) is returning to London after 15 years in a penal colony. He yearns to see his wife and beautiful daughter Johanna (Ashley Fox Linton.) When Mrs. Lovett (Deborah Gilmour Smyth), his former landlady, reveals that his wife committed suicide after being raped by Judge Turpin (Steve Gunderson) — the same judge who sent him away — Benjamin vows revenge.

The character of Sweeney Todd is so complex that his true nature stays hidden for several of the opening scenes, which allows us to focus on the hilarious and eccentric Mrs. Lovett. Smyth is exceptional in her role. From the time she lures Sweeney to take the loft above her bakery, through her unrequited love of Sweeney and her discovery that meat pies will be a good income, we’re admiring her talent to captivate us along with her amazing voice.

As Sweeney settles in and learns what’s going on in London, he plots his revenge on the judge and a plan to get his daughter — now in guardianship of the judge — back. This is when Sweeney Todd comes alive as a character thanks to Sean Murray’s incredible portrayal. His dark and brooding mood never disappears and his wonderful songs, especially the silly but oh-so-telling “Pretty Women,” fit into the story so perfectly. His rendering of each song is so splendid, it enthralls us to listen to the music and forget about Sweeney’s dastardly deeds.

“It is a dark story about what happens when a man becomes obsessed with revenge,” said. “But I feel that it’s ultimately a story about how important forgiveness is.”

Linton plays the Cinderella in the story. Johanna is a girl who loves to sing, adores birds, and wants freedom and romance. While singing from her window, she attracts the attention of Anthony (Jacob Caltrider), a young sailor who promises to set her free. Linton and Caltrider both have extraordinary voices, and their “Kiss Me” duet is delightful.

The entire “Sweeney Todd” cast is exceptional. Another standout in the play is Tom Zohar, who plays the lost and innocent young street lad Tobias. His dialogue while learning the ins and outs of helping Mrs. Lovett in the bakery is funny and frantic for most of the show, but in the second act, several songs reveal he’s a very talented singer.

Linton agrees that this exceptional cast drives the show. “Sean Murray is great, not only at co-directing, but also in his role as Sweeney Todd,” she said. “I’m so impressed with this show. The voices are all great, and the performances by everyone are top-notch.”

While some theater patrons might shy away from a play about a barber slitting throats, I highly recommend seeing this show. The Cygnet design team has created a set that fits the mood, and there’s nothing outright gory about what’s seen on stage. Instead, it’s the captivating performances and musical numbers that make “Sweeny Todd” a not-to-miss musical.

“There’s something for everyone,” Linton said. “The relationships in the show are really strong, it’s intellectual and emotional, but it’s really a spectacle people will enjoy. The music is so powerful and moving I think the score will really stun the patrons.”

‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’

  • When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, through May 9
  • Where: Cygnet Theatre Company, Old Town Stage, 4040 Twiggs St., San Diego
  • Tickets: $17-$49; (619) 337-1525,