Review: ‘Sweeney Todd’ at Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre


In an interestingly unusual choice for the typical light-hearted summer stock musicals at Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre, Sweeney Todd is an exceptional production with strong performances and crisp, exceedingly clever directorial choices.

Dolly Stevens and Christopher Sanders. Photo by C.King Photography.
Dolly Stevens and Christopher Sanders. Photo by C.King Photography.

Brilliantly directed and choreographed by Edward Carignan, with impeccable music direction from Thomas Albert, Sweeney Todd is a fantastic production.

Set in Victorian era London with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Hugh Wheeler, Sweeney Todd tells the story of Benjamin Barker, a barber wrongfully imprisoned by a lustful judge who rapes Barker’s wife and adopts Barker’s young daughter as his ward. Now, fifteen years later, Barker returns to London under the alias Sweeney Todd and teams up with meat pie shop owner, Mrs. Lovett, to exact revenge by murdering the men who ruined his life and disposing of the evidence by stuffing the meat pies with some…..human elements.

Ironically, as the title character and infamous serial killer, Christopher Sanders was very relaxed and even relatable in the title role. His powerful, booming baritone voice was very effortless and impressive during the character’s solos, especially “Epiphany”. Some of his facial expressions and side glances to the audience were priceless.

Dolly Stevens was equally at ease as the female partner in crime, Mrs. Lovett. Her character was delightfully quirky and down-to-earth, with just the right amount of insanity for the character. Though a few notes in the higher register were a little challenging for Stevens, her comically brass delivery and choices were excellent and Stevens had the audience rolling with some of her brightly chipper one-liners as the comic relief to break some of the over dramatic tension in the show. She and Sanders had an astonishing, extremely easy going chemistry, especially during “A Little Priest.”

Trevor Schmidt is adorably love able and energetic as adopted worker, Tobias Ragg. He gave a phenomenal performance during “Not While I’m Around” and nearly stopped the show.

Christopher Prasse is a wholesome, young, eager sailor as Antony Hope. His soaring tenor voice was delightful on his solo “Johanna” and Prasse brought a lovely, bright contrast to his scenes with Sanders.

Gabriella Francis was a fragile, yet spirited and sometimes even spiteful Johanna, which was a refreshing take on the typical ingenue character. Her clear, contemporary soprano voice was lovely, though she had a few timing issues with the character’s solo “Green Finch and Linnet Bird”.

Though the production featured excellent singers, there were a few rhythmic issues throughout with the entire company singing the intricate music in perhaps Sondheim’s most difficult score.

Phillip Sargent was elegantly creepy as righteous villain, Judge Turpin. Michael Forest was delightful as The Beadle and the decision to have the character constantly eating whenever he was onstage was a hilarious choice.

This production featured several very clever directorial choices and small changes to freshen up how this bloodbath musical is typically portrayed. One such change was the portrayal of blood when a victim was murdered, taken from the 2005 Broadway revival. Instead of fake blood pouches bursting on the actor whenever a victim’s throat was slit, instead ensemble members appeared on the platforms on either side of the stage and poured red liquid out of buckets in deep red lighting to represent blood flowing.

Carignan also included some cheerful, even campy moments in the midst of the murder, particularly some of Sander’s side looks to the audience at unexpected moments, some delightful small improvisations in “Pretty Women” and some comically disgusting, yet hilarious choices, in “The Worst Pies in London.”

However, in this version of Sweeney Todd, it truly seemed as though the characters with the least amount of stage time made the greatest impressions.

In a delightfully tailored fit for a character designed to be a scene stealer, Jordan Stocksdale is ravishing as Italian barber and Sweeney’s business rival, Adolfo Pirelli. He milks every moment possible in the smaller role as the flamboyant barber and is delightfully over-the-top with sharp comedic timing.

The standout member of the production is Meg Stefanowicz as the Beggar Woman. In a truly impressive turn, Stefanowicz steals the attention in every scene she had and gave a chillingly realistic performance of a truly crazed woman, with both an outstanding vocal range and phenomenal range of challenging physical movements.

The ensemble is composed of many talented performers, including Katie Davis, Emma Gwin, Ashley Knaack, Jordan McCaskill, Dorian McCorey, Madelyn Pyles, Adia J. Seckel, Sarah Summerwell, Alex Boyd, Christopher Castanho, Peyton Chance, Michael Dikegoros, Chris Godshall, Thomas Golding, Dan Morton, Michael Piepoli, Russell Rinker, and Josh Walker, who manage to bring a distinctive character and individual qualities to each ensemble character in the piece.

The performers have an exceptional set, impressively designed by William Pierson, to use while bringing the dark story of the vengeful barber to life.  Rotating platforms, manually rotated by ensemble members, provided a fantastic chaotic touch to many of the solos and scene transitions. Using portable wooden interlocking set pieces to display different locations was a clever staging device, which has also been used to great effect in previous SSMT shows.

The lighting, designed by William McConnell Bozman, was effectively varied, with softer yellow lighting for scenes with the young lovers and intense, red lighting for many of the murderous, bloody scenes in the barbershop.

Costumes, designed by Jennifer Flitton Adams, highlighted the various personalities of each character though light and dark colors, particularly for Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett in their social status transition from Act I to Act II when the pie shop becomes a success. The costumes featured period appropriate accessories that also helped to differentiate the social classes of each character in the ensemble.

For a bloody good musical with some clever new choices and razor sharp performances, don’t miss Sweeney Todd at Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre.

Running Time: 2 Hours and 30 Minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.


Sweeney Todd plays through July 10, 2016 at the Ohrstrom-Bryant Theatre on the campus of Shenandoah University – 620 Millwood Avenue in Winchester, VA. For tickets, call (540) 665-4569, or purchase them online.

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