Tall Tales: Denver Center’s “Sweeney Todd” is Killer

Tall Tales: Denver Center’s “Sweeney Todd” is Killer

The Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ production of “Sweeney Todd” gets a rave from Tall Tales columnist Mark Stevens, TIO’s Denver theatre critic. Through May 15. Tickets here.

 Robert Petkoff as Sweeney Todd, the bloodthirsty barber of Fleet Street. Courtesy, The Denver Center.

Robert Petkoff as Sweeney Todd, the bloodthirsty barber of Fleet Street. Courtesy, The Denver Center.

Before you dig a few quid out of your pocket for the Denver Center Theater Company’s energetic staging of “Sweeney Todd,” DeVotchKa fans should know that the band’s involvement is mostly heard and not seen.

The billing claims the show is “served up” by the band, but don’t go expecting to see the band on stage for more than a few Fleet Street moments.

Yes, three-quarters of DeVotchKa make brief appearances on stage. Tom Hagerman, Shawn King, and Jeanie Schroder are there at the outset, smack on stage in period garb. But then all they disappear during a flurry of dancing during the opening number. They help kick off the second act, too, and are there at the Big Finish, right before the audience leaps to its feet.

Both Hagerman and King take brief acting turns, sitting in the grizzly little barber chair, blood spurting down their necks before they are dispatched as pie filling fodder down the chute to the oven. Their roles involve climbing a set of stairs, sitting there clueless, and dying with conviction. Well done. (We all smile and cringe, knowing their fate.)

The DeVotchKa imprint on this show takes place in the orchestra pit with their reworking of what was already a challenging and highly technical score. (Lead singer Nick Urata, whose haunting voice is as much the DeVotchKa brand as their intriguing sound, is not involved here at all.)  So to appreciate the new orchestrations and DeVotchKian touches, it might be best to know how the tunes are arranged in the original Stephen Sondheim form.

Or not.

Without or without awareness of changes to the score, this rendering (ahem) is delicious, tasty, appetizing, and filling.

Where to begin? The set and its multi-purpose spinning pie shop/parlor with the barber shop on top? The hot roar of the crackling oven? The killer costumes? The Fleet Street staging is knock-out.

Or with the performances? As revengeful villains go, it doesn’t get much better than the role Sweeney Todd and Robert Petkoff is perfect, a bit Russell Crowe with a powerful voice and a credible sneer. When he confronts his most fateful mistake, he oozes genuine agony.

Linda Mugleston (the pie shop owner, Mrs. Lovett) is a terrific match for Petkoff. Right on down the line, the cast is a powerhouse. Daniel Berryman (Anthony Hope, who makes it look so easy), Samantha Bruce (Johanna), Kathleen McCall (the Beggar Woman), and Michael Brian Dunn (Pirelli) all perform with nuance and authority. A few key moments rely on utter silence and The Stage Theater was so quiet, and the moments so compelling, you could have heard blood spurt.

The musical numbers often interweave and overlap. Lyrics tumble and play off each other. The sensation, at times, is fractured and kaleidoscopic—your ear bouncing from one refrain to another. The approach requires focus and, well, razor-sharp timing. This cast, directed by Kent Thompson and choreographed by Joel Farrell, delivers.

And this bunch are pros. On Saturday evening (April 16), a mechanical snafu caused the barber chair to malfunction. The chair serves in a dual capacity. Chair, of course, and also as the first few feet of the feeding tube for the pie shop. But something snagged or caught and the chair balked. The actors broke scene flawlessly. “I’m dead,” announced the beggar woman as she walked down the stairs. The actors all waited for the stage hands and the fix and then returned to the flow without a hitch. Professionals, yep.

Based on an old London folk tale, Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s version of “Sweeney Todd” works today because revenge and violence are as common as the morning newspaper. So is misdirected violence and the fact that innocent bystanders (like poor Misters Hagerman and King) sometimes lose their lives.

Set and group scene from Denver Center’s “Sweeney Tood.” Courtesy, The Denver Center.

Set and group scene from Denver Center’s “Sweeney Tood.” Courtesy, The Denver Center.

As villains go, Sweeney Todd’s motivation is simple. And understandable. Wrongfully convicted and sent to a penal colony on Australia for 15 years, who wouldn’t return with a chip on one’s shoulder and yearning to hold your precious razors once again?

The fact that the pie shop and the chamber of horrors live side by side (in this case, above and below) is no different than the everyday co-existence of violence and commerce today. Check the morning news and off to work we go. We squirm as throats are slashed one moment, then are asked to laugh and enjoy (“A Little Priest,” “God, That’s Good”) the next.

In the age of “Game of Thrones,” in fact, “Sweeney Todd” feels every bit current and DeVotchKa-infused fresh.

Even hot.

Straight out of the oven.

Mark Stevens, courtesy Cyrus McCrimmon

Mark Stevens, courtesy Cyrus McCrimmon

Editor’s note: Telluride Inside… and Out’s regular column, Tall Tales, is so named because contributor Mark Stevens is one long drink of water. He is also long on talent. Mark was raised in Massachusetts. He’s been a Coloradoan since 1980. He’s worked as a print reporter, national news television producer, and school district communicator. Mark is the author of the Allison Coil Mystery Series—Antler Dust (2007), Buried by the Roan (2011), Trapline (2014) and Lake of Fire (due out in September, 2015). The series is set in the Flat Tops Wilderness in Western Colorado. Trapline won the 2015 Colorado Book Award for best mystery and the 2015 Colorado Author League award for best genre fiction. Mark Stevens’ new Alison Coil mystery, Lake of Fire, was published this year.

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