Mind your meat pies! ‘Sweeney Todd’ opens at EPAC

By on October 25, 2017

The cast of EPAC’s “Sweeney Todd” includes (front row, left to right) Sean Young, as Sweeney Todd; and Bobbi Bear, as Mrs. Lovett; (back, l-r) Stacia Smith, as Beggar Woman; Rogan Motter, as Tobias; Jordon Ross-Weinhold, as Pielli; Brad DeLeone, as Anthony; Kayla Klase, as Johanna; Richard Bradbury, as Judge; and Preston Schreffler, as Beadle.

When I was a young lad in Lancaster City I usually wanted to be something animalistic and scary for Halloween. One particular year, I spotted one of the scariest masks I’d ever seen at Rebman’s. It was a wicked combination of a bat and a wolf, a grisly and bloody representation of fear. My mother said no. And probably rightly so. But, I scrimped, saved, and collected the $35 as fast as I could and bought the mask for myself.

Giving into my determination, my mother fashioned a simple costume around the design of the mask. I was proud and probably a horror to be seen for sure, at least for a little while. The mask was terrible. It was hot and itchy. I was drenched in sweat almost immediately and wandered most of the neighborhood on trick or treat night with the mask pulled up, the chin of it suctioning to my constantly moist forehead. That year I had my fill of macabre attire.

That’s not to say I don’t love a good scary story (to see just how big of a sucker I am for horror movies just read my regular column “Reel Reviews” once and a while). It was a scary story — with a bit of ghastly humor — I was set up for when entering the Sharadin Bigler Theatre on Thursday, Oct. 19 for the opening of EPAC’s “Sweeney Todd.”

The story of the “demon barber of Fleet Street” grew in modern popularity in part to a 1979 Stephen Sondheim musical, which won a Tony Award for Best Musical and spawned a feature film starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. On Thursday, the stage at EPAC awoke with “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” a mystifying and magnificent opening number featuring the entire cast. The butcher himself, played with a haunting and crazed stare by EPAC alum Sean Young, takes center stage as the audience is provoked and dared to hear the entire tale.

The story begins as Todd returns to London. On his voyage he met the young Anthony (Brad DeLeone) who has come to London with the joy of world travel billowing his sails. Todd, on the other hand, has come to London with a more sinister intent: to avenge those who wrongfully imprisoned him with a sentence of lifetime banishment to the penal colony of Australia. He looks to assert his revenge on Judge Turpin (Richard Bradbury) and his clever constabulary crony, Beadle Bamford (Preston Schreffler).

Upon his return to his old neighborhood he is recognized by Mrs. Lovett (Bobbi Bear), the local baker and maker of “The Worst Pies in London.” She informs Todd that his wife has since succumbed to drug use, and in her absence his daughter, Johanna (Kayla Klase), has become the judge’s ward. Todd takes the baker up on her offering to house him and creates a space where he can once again practice cutting…hair — with a more barbarian touch than before — and offering clean, close shaves.

Todd establishes himself as a skilled barber in a contest with Signor Adolofo Pirelli (Jordan Ross Weinhold), who is a bit of a confidence man using the young Tobias (Rogan Motter) to hock his line of miracle ointment. Pirelli recognizes Todd’s exquisite razor and blackmails the barber. This does not turn out well for Pirelli.

With Pirelli gone, Tobias goes to work for Mrs. Lovett. By the end of Act I, Todd and the baker slip into madness. The duo concocts a sinister plan to deal with victims’ remains, which culminates in a hysterically funny and yet powerfully dark number titled “Epiphany.”

During all this Anthony has fallen in love with Johanna and a multi-layered scheme is hatched to provide both her freedom and Todd’s revenge. The problem is that the judge has fallen for his ward, too, and rather than see her in the company of another man has sent her off to Jonas Fogg’s (Evan Cooper) home for the mentally ill. Throughout, the story is intersected by a mysterious Beggar Woman (Stacia Smith) whose identity is more than comedic device and is not revealed until the final scene.

Pardon the cliché, but with “Sweeney Todd” EPAC is hitting on all cylinders; like a well-oiled theatrical machine –or a razor-sharp set of electric clippers — the entire cast and crew pours every ounce of their effort, craft, and talent into this show. Spellbound, I edged closer to the stage after each number until I could take it no more and stood in ovation for Bear at the show’s conclusion. Her portrayal of the mentally slipping baker was loving and bizarre, comedic and disturbing, conventional and outlandish.

When given the opportunity, like Schreffler in “Ladies in Their Sensitivities” or Weinhold in “The Contest,” each member of the cast seized their opportunity to shine.

EPAC’s attention to detail in this show is phenomenal, from the creepy dolls in the Beggar Woman’s cart to the magnificent costuming (Kate Willman). Costumes, which combined masterfully with the lighting (Jeff Cusano) proved to be more than mere coverings and even serve as foreshadowing. I was transfixed by the little details like the sheer dress Johanna wears early in the show and how it almost became translucent only to have this image echo during a most disturbing reprise of “Johanna” featuring the judge and his attempts at self-flagellation.

In a spectacular move, Director Ed Fernandez has chosen to contemporize the tale, which has its roots in serial penny tales of the 1800s. The musical still holds the feel of desperate, impoverished London, but is lit with modernity like neon pink bibs on the happy customers at the bakery in “God, That’s Good.” The characters’ dress is of a new style, but nondescript. There is a surrealist, almost 1950s flair in this EPAC version. If this rendition may sound distracting to purists, rest assured it is not. The only noticeable burden was the presence of dialect and accent, which slowly dissolved as the show progressed.

Murder from the hands of Todd is shocking and disturbing. The entire show is haunting as it makes things that should not be creepy creepy. I don’t think I’ll eat strawberry Jell-O anytime soon after sitting so close to the meat grinder.

Under Fernandez’s direction, the ensemble becomes part of the set, clopping about and making eerie appearances in unexpected locations. I must give a special shout out to Smith who managed to startle me twice in one week! Days before the show (on other business at the theatre), I rounded the steps of the side entrance during a costume rehearsal and came into abrupt contact with the Beggar Woman. Startled, all I could say was “that’s creepy.” Still in character, she laughed with a bit of cackle. During the show she suddenly appeared by my side at the onset of Act II asking for spare change as I was distracted by the goings on at the bakery in front of me.

“Sweeney Todd” is a fitting show to have this time of year, and the tragic tale of revenge betwixt love fits into EPAC’s mantra of providing “theatre that matters.” The show, a masterpiece from curtain call to coda, is truly a grisly and bloody representation of fear — and great live theatre.

Michael C. Upton is a freelance writer specializing in arts and leisure. He welcomes comments at somepromcu@gmail.com and facebook.com/SomebodiesProductions.

Sean Young, as Sweeney Todd, and Bobbi Bear, as Mrs. Lovett.

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