• Players by the Sea

A Review of Sweeney Todd

By Liza Mitchell

Players by the Sea dispels any notion that a community theater can’t produce big work. “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is a giant undertaking on every conceivable front. With a score by the indomitable Stephen Sondheim, the show demands strong vocals and a larger-than-life cast to pull off this towering production.

“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is one of Sondheim’s most prolific works and director Jereme Raickett assembled a monster team to set the right tone. From the multi functional set design and flawless lighting to the masterful deliver of one Broadway’s most challenging scores, the show kills.

“Sweeney Todd” is staged at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 31 at Players by the Sea, 106 N. 6th Street in Jacksonville Beach. Tickets are $35 and available online at www.playersbythesea.com or by calling the box office at 249-0289.

The show opened last weekend to a packed house, rapt from the first notes of the opening number. Ensemble players dressed in period costumes and ghoulish makeup hold the audience captive as they introduce the macabre tale of revenge and betrayal.

Benjamin Barker, now known as Sweeney Todd, has returned to London after being banished for 15 years by the corrupt Judge Turpin. The wrongly imprisoned barber was rescued at sea by a noble young sailor, Anthony Hope, and vows to seek revenge on those who had destroyed his family.

Todd learns the fate of his wife Lucy and daughter Johanna by Mrs. Lovett, who owns the meat pie shop below. Lucy poisoned herself with arsenic after being tricked into Turpin’s clutches by local copper Beadle Bamford. Johanna is locked away by the nefarious Turpin who takes a lecherous shine to his beautiful young ward. When a rival barber threatens to reveal his true identity, Todd devises an evil plan with the help of Mrs. Lovett.

It's easy to forget in a production as ambitious as “Sweeney Todd '' that the actors on stage are all volunteers. Christopher Sanders is without exception a standout in the title role and the only member of the cast who is also a member of the Actors’ Equity Association. Sanders is reprising his role at PBTS, having previously tackled the role in Players’ 2008-09 season.

As an award-winning actor and singer, Sanders’ chops are on full display as Sweeney Todd. He exalts his role with a towering presence and booming baritone voice, an inferno of rage percolating just below the surface. He slices through each obstacle in sharp bursts, fueling the fire in Mrs. Lovett’s baking oven. Despite his murderous tendencies, audiences will empathize with his humanity and desperate sadness. It's impossible to look away.

Brenda Schoenfeld is deliciously campy as Mrs. Lovett, a lonely widow and shrewd business woman who preyed on alley cats for the meat in her pies until Todd establishes his quarters above her shop. Her enthusiastic complicity to commit murder both for pleasure and profit is a perfect match for Sanders’ somber and singular focus for vengeance. The duo’s duet comparing the profession of the unlikely victims of their plot to the consistency as pie filling makes cannibalism catchy.

“Sweeney Todd” also showcases the unmistakable talent of the younger cast members. Ricky Fields is Beadle Bamford, the lawless lawman who aids and abets Turpin’s sinister plan. As a

senior at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, Fields’ raw talent and soaring vocal range defies his youth.

Mickey Titus as the street urchin Tobias Ragg is the show’s underdog, a quiet hero willing to serve at the pleasure of Pirelli until his master goes missing from Todd’s barber chair. Toby is a loveable, if not oblivious, scamp who is blissed at the notion of baking pies alongside Mrs. Lovett until he discovers the savage truth behind those oven doors. Titus’ emotional realization is among the show’s highlights, as is the reveal of the mysterious beggar woman who flutters about London as a loony prostitute, pandering for money or sexual favors.

There are no small roles, and Bethany Paolini as the Beggar gets some of the show’s biggest laughs with every second of stage time. Hecate Smith’s Pirelli - Sweeney's rival – delivers a memorable performance for the fanciful sham that leads to his demise. Ronni Belser, as the ingenue, Johanna, sings like a bird as spotlighted in her “Green Finch and Linnet Bird.” As her suitor, Anthony, Benjamin Archer is strong as a knight ready to slay the dragon and rescue his princess from the tower, except in this case, the tower is an asylum and the dragon is a sleazy lawman with a penchant for underage girls.

Sweeney Todd is darkly funny just in time for Halloween but it’s also a celebration of musical theater and a smashing success for Players by the Sea.

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