Kokandy’s Sweeney is a creative, exciting take on Sondheim’s master work

Photo by Evan Hanover

Kokandy Productions is one of my favorite companies for interpreting musicals in small spaces on a low budget, and Sweeney Todd is one of the best musicals ever. It is usually dependent on big sets (the barber chair to bakehouse slides practically scream for multiple levels), though Theo Ubique did it several years ago in its old cafe location, effectively incorporating the audience into the production. All of this made me extremely excited to see what this clever company—their summer production of Cruel Intentions the Musical is one of my favorite shows of this year—could do with Stephen Sondheim’s iconic musical in its confining basement space at Chopin Theatre. And what they did was to prove once again that their unique skill, under director Derek Van Barham’s creative lead, and ability to attract talented actors leave no musical (large or small) outside of their range. Their Sweeney is unique and moving from start to finish and works brilliantly even without some of the expected physical elements. Here, even Sweeney’s razors remain in our imagination.

Van Barham’s imagination is on display even before the show begins, as the audience catches sight of several actors in eye-catching, geometrical, and brightly colored makeup designed by Sydney Genco, who went to town on this project. The makeup is the first sign (well, other than the set, which is a hexagonal platform—a turntable moved by the actors—set on a square one) that Van Barham isn’t interested in verisimilitude here; he is interested in mood. And that mood is quickly set when we meet Sweeney, the transported barber who is clandestinely returning to London after twenty years in order to get his revenge. As played by Kevin Webb, this is a Sweeney who has been broken in many ways by his years in exile; his frequent, enormous, painful-looking head spasms—as if he were undergoing electroshock therapy—are only the most notable physical sign.

At first, Webb tones the character down, doing his best to “control” the spasms and maintain an even emotional stance, but gradually Sweeney’s inner pain simply takes over as the spasms become bigger and more frequent. Forming a deadly partnership with Mrs. Lovett (Caitlyn Jackson reminding the audience of Angela Lansbury’s Broadway take on the character) helps him to fight off his demons for a little while, but everything falls apart when her advice—to take his revenge slowly—backfires. He has Judge Turpin (Christopher Johnson), who sentenced him (and who is responsible for the gang-rape of Sweeney’s wife, and who now has Sweeney’s daughter Joanna as his ward), in his temporary barber chair but, in taking time to enjoy the moment, he misses his opportunity.

After that, all bets are off.

Jackson’s Lovett is a wonderful creation. It’s easy to see that Todd’s return is something she has dreamed about in her infatuation with him, which she makes clear in her take on the murderously comical “A Little Priest,” in which she explains her plan to have him kill people as practice leading up to the object of his hatred while she uses their bodies to fill her pies, “the price of meat being what it is when you get it…if you get it.” The duet is twisted, yes, but undeniably hilarious, and I saw people whom I know have seen the show many times laughing out loud during it. Jackson is just as wonderful in Lovett’s seductive “By the Sea,” in which she articulates her (unreciprocated) vision of their future together.

The secondary leads, Ryan Stajmiger as the sailor Anthony who saved Todd from certain death on the high sea and befriended him on the long journey and Chamaya Moody as his object of affection who turns out to be Joanna, are individually strong with lovely voices but lack the kind of chemistry that Webb and Jackson exude. Even the first-love number “Kiss Me” fails to make them a real couple. Their frantic escape from Turpin’s clutches when they discover that the judge—defying at least the spirit of anti-incest laws—has decided to marry her lacks the combination of urgent fear and barely suppressed horniness that defines the best versions of this scene. Without that, it’s hard to see them as the fairy tale couple they want to become.

Several more minor characters are better realized. Chief among them are Pirelli (Quinn Rigg) and his young assistant Tobias (Patrick O’Keefe). Rigg’s take on the pompous Italian barber is delightful, and O’Keefe exudes innocent earnestness while assisting him and, later, Lovett. As an old beggar woman who appears early and often—and is the first to sense that there is something terrible going on at Mrs. Lovett’s Meat Pies—Isabel Cecilia García creates a very sympathetic societal victim who has a secret, dark connection to the main scenes. Josiah Haugen’s Beadle Bamford and Johnson as Turpin are both clear in their officiousness and yet capable of hidden depth. Turpin’s self-flagellation scene, in which we see the emotional pain his depravity is causing him, is brilliantly depicted, and Bamford shows off a secret fun side in a scene in which he commandeers the piano and sings old folk ditties with Mrs. Lovett.

But here it is Van Barham’s use of his fine ensemble that makes all of the difference. Taking full advantage of the frightening subtexts in Genco’s makeup, he makes his ensemble into the embodiment of darkness and retribution. On several occasions, he has them closely surround Todd or other major characters, menacingly singing and angrily staring. He even does something similar with his staging of Todd’s letter to Turpin, intended to trick him to his death. From the opening, the ensemble holds a mirror up to this evil world…quite literally, as the show is full of empty frames that stand in for the reflective surfaces. (Maybe they just wouldn’t like what they would see?) Even in the one clearly joyful moment for the ensemble—when they get to sample the new and delicious meat pies, which they fully enjoy—Van Barham’s choreography shows them for the monsters they are becoming as they contort and twist themselves while singing the pies’ praises and chowing down on their fellow Londoners.

G. “Max” Maxin IV designed both the set and the lights to make the most of the small space; this is one of the only productions of this play I’ve ever seen in the round, and (though the audience does have to use their imagination a bit more than usual) it works well. Mike Patrick’s sound is not as fully realized; it is undeniably difficult to mic this odd space in any balanced way, but his design works more often than not. And I don’t know who designed the “blood” effect when throats are sliced (Properties Designer Jakob Abderhalden perhaps?) but it is both simple and surprisingly effective. The music is provided by a talented four-piece band led by Tyler Miles, and it is perfect for this space.

Van Barham’s decision to go as darkly bizarre as he can in a show about cannibalism, murder, and revenge that already contains the frenetic “City on Fire” pays off here. The insanity here is pretty much contagious and, in the end, all except for Anthony (and, with his help, Joanna) succumb to it. My recommendation here is a no-brainer: when it is working—and it is mostly working—this is a powerful and visually exciting show. Kokandy shows always are.

Tickets are available from Kokandy Productions for performances now through Nov. 6. For other reviews, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.

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