What has an overabundance of cannibalism jokes, a Game of Thrones-esque body count, and some of the wittiest, prettiest songs you’ve ever heard? Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s gory slice of melodrama Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
The 1979 musical took a 19th-century penny-dreadful monster and transformed him into the embodiment of class-based trauma, framed in a cheerily horrific story of “man devouring man.” The small but impressive Reboot Theatre Company’s non-traditional casting upends the “man” while intensifying parallels to our own overheated pop culture. London bleeds, London burns, and yet London keeps chasing that tasty new morsel to slurp down.
The plot: A wrongfully convicted barber, Sweeney Todd, escapes from an Australian penal colony and returns to London with the help of a young sailor, Anthony. Sweeney finds his former life in ashes; after being raped by the evil Judge Turpin with the aid of his Beadle, his wife poisoned herself and left her and Sweeney’s baby to be raised by her attacker. Obsessed with revenge, Sweeney makes a grisly return to his old trade—with the victims of his practice benefitting the ruthlessly pragmatic meat-pie shop owner downstairs, Mrs. Lovett.
At its barest, the story of Sweeney Todd pits evil male lust against the male thirst for violent retribution—abetted by an equally fiendish “feminine” practicality. My first thought was that by choosing non-binary people and women for key men’s roles, Reboot might subvert this dynamic. But aside from heightening the camp at times (e.g. Kylee Gano’s hilariously bro-ey Beadle), the casting choices mainly gave excellent actors like Mandy Rose Nichols (Sweeney) and Brittany Allyson (Anthony) a crack at killer roles that would normally be denied them.
Nichols, coldly magnetic, plays up Sweeney’s trauma, flinching when unexpectedly touched, glowering at a creeping societal rot no one else sees. Were they drawing on the idea of queer trauma, as Reboot’s poster, featuring a torso with chest surgery scars, might suggest? The possibility remained just that, a possibility, quietly undermining the trope of justified rage as the purview of cis masculinity.
The other characters don’t notice Sweeney’s horrors partly because, in Julia Griffin’s staging, they’re as addicted to smartphones as we are. Frankly, at first, I feared this anachronism might annoyingly distract from the pitiless Grand-Guignol thrust of the melodrama. But as it turns out, our hysterical search for internet novelty complements Sweeney Todd’s grotesque spectacle of self-consumption rather piquantly. Why do Mrs. Lovett’s customers keep returning to eat mysteriously plentiful meat of unknown provenance? Why do unshaven gentlemen offer their necks to Sweeney when a bunch of their peers have vanished? Why do we keep refreshing Facebook when we know it’s guzzling our data and feeding it to ad companies?
That said, I’m thinking about returning to Reboot’s Sweeney Todd before the run’s over. The text of Sweeney Todd is hardly understated—you can’t be subtle while bellowing “We all deserve to die!” and brandishing a razor—but I’m certain I didn’t catch all the nuances of Nichols’s performance, or Alyssa Keene’s as Mrs. Lovett, or Karin Terry’s as the adorable urchin Tobias. Even with the (ferociously difficult) music slightly less polished than the staging, there are more great moments than I can mention here, whether from Vincent Milay’s literally dazzling fraudster Pirelli or from Cammi Smith’s lilting ingenue Joanna. So, Reboot: More Hot Pies! More HOT! More PIES!
Reboot Theatre Company's production of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street runs through June 1 at the Slate Theater.