I believe Seattle musical theater aficionados will look back upon this season as a profound turning point in the trajectory of 5th Avenue Theatre productions. Two names will be spoken of when discussing this season: Sweeney Todd and Jay Woods. Jay Woods’ directorial excellence is on full display with her envisioning of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. I feel somewhat hesitant trying to parse or explain why Woods’ production is such a powerful, pleasing, and profoundly memorable theater experience for fear of cheapening the impact of the event. Sweeney Todd is a complete musical. Sondheim’s source material is not just polished off, but given new life, new breath, and new relevance.
The entire production, from scenic design (Lex Marcos), to costuming (Danielle Nieves), to lighting (Robert J. Aguilar), to sound (Haley Parcher), to choreography (Katy Tabb), to music (Matt Perri), to whatever I failed to mention, is so well thought out and integrated that one could assume he/she/they were viewing a production that was scheduled to run for months on Broadway. Of course, a Broadway comparison is somewhat misleading because the Seattle production does not feel sanitized or compromised to garner the most tickets sales. Woods’ Sweeney Todd is really, really good.
I apologize if my review might be a bit scattered as I continue, but I feel like a little kid who is trying to hurriedly tell his parents about something exciting he has just seen, but he doesn’t want to pause to give the full context of the story. I am sort of out of breath with excitement, even after waiting a day to write this review. Let me just jump right into the stage design.
Woods creates a subtle but powerful bird cage motif to encapsulate the story of Sweeney Todd. The entire stage looks like a minimalistic bird cage. The actors wear blended multicolored jackets, suits, and dresses evoking bird plumage. The scaffolding stage centers Sweeney Todd, and some of the most gruesome activity, like a bird centered on a perch. Just as droppings fall to the floor of a bird cage, so do the results of the depravity of Sweeney Todd and the other misdeeds of London. The bird cage motif creates the overarching theme that no matter what is done, or how lofty one tries to elevate themselves; no one can escape the cage.
The lighting design is masterful and mesmerizing, haunting and warm, transitioning with the mood and movement of the story. Woods gives equal priority to all aspects of the theater experience. She understands that the music and the words are only two aspects of the story. The stage is the story, the lighting is the story, the costuming is the story. In this regard, all central elements of the production become characters within themselves. Sweeney Todd’s lighting has its own voice and that voice harmonizes with and energizes the rest of the show.
In recent years, the 5th Avenue Theatre has come to realize their value of representation in principle did not match representation in practice. To rectify this problem, they provided space for musicals that specifically focused on better representation of groups traditionally not given equal access to the stage. This led to some excellent productions. As a result of this concerted focus, dividing walls have begun to come down and the 5thAvenue Theatre experience is becoming better, almost exponentially better. The kind of better you feel when you didn’t fully realize what you’ve always been missing. The stories are more three dimensional, that cast is more robust, the voices are more powerful, and frankly there is just a palatable renewed creative energy.
Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd is a grand spectacle based on audacious, salacious source material. The musical wears the sash of dark humor well, but underneath that sash the show is clothed with deep timeless themes of justice, inequality, revenge, love, and rage. Sondheim’s musical masterfully maintains a Shakespearean feel that allows the show to jump from catchy songs with broad humor to dark and wonderfully melodic horrific choruses. The original musical was a grand and bold attempt to provide a big payoff musical experience. Woods understands what makes Sweeney Todd a classic and makes the original content shine fresh and relevant. She also knows how to select a cadre of actors who can sing!
Yusef Seevers’ (Sweeney Todd) voice reverberates as if a microphone is optional. Although I was thankful for the clear sound design that allowed me to hear the advancing plot through the songs, I was even more thankful that the sound system was amplifying some of the most beautiful voices you will hear together on one stage. Deon’te Goodman (Anthony Hope), Porscha Shaw (Beggar Woman), Anne Allgood (Mrs. Lovett), Sean David Cooper (Judge Turpin), Jason Weitkamp (The Beadles), Leslie Jackson (Johanna), Nik Hagen (Tobias Ragg), Jesus Garcia (Adolgo Pirelli), and the entire ensemble make wonderfully clear and beautiful music together. On a personal note, I simply loved the barber chair scenes with Yusef Seevers (Sweeney Todd) and Sean David Cooper (Judge Turpin). They sing a catchy, grab-you-by-the-throat melody.
Side note, is the musical Waitress a sequel to Sweeny Todd, at least in the context of pie plots?
Anyway, much more could and should be said about this production of Sweeney Todd and the truly awards-worthy direction of Jay Woods. Besides having a masterful vision of the big picture, Woods knows how to make something funny. She gets the most out of every humorous scene, treating silly puns with the same respect as grand serious tragedy. She trusts the material enough the realize that a good laugh will not take away from the less humorous aspects of the story. Her nuanced understanding of comedic timing says much about her mastery of the craft.
Ok…this is when I’m supposed to end my review with some sort of Sweeney Todd plot-driven groan-inducing pun. However, I think it would be beneath me to do such a thing. So instead, I’ll simply say if you want to see one of the best musicals to grace the 5th Avenue Theatre stage, then by all means get a ticket to Sweeney Todd. Jay Woods’ presentation of Sweeney Toddy is a wonderfully tasty human experience. Sugar, butter, flour….