Freaky Shrieky: ANW Does Stephen Sondheim’s Slash and Burn Bedlam Musical

the Ensemble: All photos by Craig Schwartz

A squeamish soul, I’ve avoided seeing any of the various stage or screenpermutations of the London-set Sweeney Todd saga, which - according to A Noise

Within’s playbill - stretches back to an 1846 penny dreadful during the Victorian
era. I somehow even managed to miss Tim Burton’s 2007 movie adaptation of
Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 Broadway musical starring Johnny Depp and Helena
Bonham Carter in this macabre story about a wrongfully convicted barber who
wreaks havoc with his preternaturally sharp razor blade, providing an unusually
tasty filling for his partner in crime’s “meat” pies.
Your scaredy cat reviewer summoned up the courage to set aside his reluctance
when it was announced that A Noise Within, one of Los Angeles’ top of the line
theater companies, was mounting the musical. I screwed up my courage to see this
screwy show but through much of the first act I was baffled, pondering what this
creepy, cannibalistic play was really all about. The jury was still out until the final
song performed during Act I, “Try the Priest,” with Sweeney (ANW’s Producing
Artistic Director and thespian extraordinaire Geoff Elliott) and his co-conspirator
Mrs. Lovett (Cassandra Marie Murphy) merrily romping atop one of the
production’s pianos as the gruesome twosome hatch their deadly scheme to
simultaneously depopulate and feed London at the same time.
The sheer merriment they express as Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett cavort and conspire
with chortling choreography devised by the show’s dazzling director, Julia
Rodriguez-Elliott, who is also an ANW Producing Artistic Director, finally won
this queasy critic over. The skillfully executed - uh - executions in Sweeney’s
barber chair are harrowingly conceived and conveyed, with searing lighting by Ken
Booth and banshee-like, bone chilling screams terrifyingly rendered by audio

engineer Lucio Maramba and sound technician Christopher Bosco, and likely
explain my insomnia opening night. As does a scene of madmen and women
confined at Bedlam, one of the theater’s most disturbing depictions of an insane
asylum since Marat/Sade (and this one featured the Marquis de Sade!) and One
Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Freaky shrieky!
Sondheim composed the play’s music and penned the songs’ lyrics, with a book by
Hugh Wheeler, that oozes with frenetic vengeance. After being exiled Down Under
at Botany Bay (“put another prisoner on the barbie, mate!”) for decades, our man
Sweeney makes good his escape and finds his way back to 19th century London,
only to be told of his wife’s (Amber Liekhus) fate and his daughter Johanna’s
(Joanna A. Jones) captivity by his nemesis, Judge Turpin (ANW stalwart Jeremy
Rabb), who has his own lecherous designs on his beautiful “guardian.”
Some may see an element of class struggle in the thwarted Sweeney’s slashing
swathe of revenge - which is a dish Mrs. Lovett serves best warm, in her dubious
meat pies. In addition to the judge, the titular demon barber and his blade also
pursues the government functionary Beadle Bamford (the preening Harrison
White). In the course of their rampage Mrs. Lovett’s simply scrumptious meat pies
enrich the previously impoverished couple. But for those reading a class war motif
into the show I’d also point out that Todd’s victims during his bloody spree on
Fleet Street include down and out members of the underclass who, he reasons,
nobody will miss once they disappear from the scene as they become grisly grist
for Mrs. Lovett’s mill of murderous meat pies baked by the pastry makers from
Having said that, it seemed that the direction of the episodic Sweeney Todd was
Brechtian, highly stylized, with agile if sparse sets by scenic designer
Francois-Pierre Couture and props (including a horrifying meat grinder) by
Stephen Taylor. ANW’s imaginative rendition of Sweeney Todd verges on the
experimental and avant garde. The only thing vaguely realistic in this nightmarish
production are the period costumes by Angela Balogh Calin, which to this
reviewer’s untutored eye seemed like reasonable facsimiles of duds worn by
denizens of 19th century London.

In the end this cowardly critic was glad he was able to overcome his fearfulness to
partake of this brilliantly staged, acted, danced and sung musical, with the cast of
almost 20 accompanied by two pianos and a cello. Of course, this isn’t everybody’s
cup of hemlock (it wasn’t mine - that is, not until I saw it!) - you’ve been
forewarned, as this show isn’t for the tykes or those with (literally!) weak
stomachs. Pass the ketchup and enjoy the show!
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is being performed Thursdays
(dark Feb. 29) at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m.; Saturdays and
Sundays at 2:00 p.m., through March 17 at A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd.,
Pasadena, CA 91107. For tickets: (626)356-3100;

All photos by Craig Schwartz; 1. Cassandra Marie Murphy and Geoff Elliott; 2. Joanna J. Jones, James Everts, Harrison White and cellist Karen Hall; 3. Cassandra Marie Murphy, cellist Karen Hall, and Harrison White