In the program for Sweeney Todd at The 5th Avenue Theatre, director Jay Woods states that her team has “been granted the privilege to investigate th[e] text in the way the late great Stephen Sondheim felt was most important,” to put “risk-taking at the heart of creation.” I assume Woods is talking about the production’s use of color-conscious casting, drawing parallels between one of the most famous revenge plots of all time and contemporary race relations. Although the casting is bold and artistically effective, the production is most impressive because of its consistently strong performances and stunning marriage of design and direction.
Sweeney Todd is wildly popular because it is the rare thoughtful musical theater spectacle. It’s also rare as a mainstream musical centered around cannibalism. The plot is structured so the show is always a few steps ahead of the audience, delivering a satisfying and unexpected narrative without relying on shock value. The score is uniquely atmospheric and the text’s use of dramatic irony is delightful. However, the slow pace often took me out of the world of the show.
Although Sondheim’s score is haunting, his dense lyricism is generally more effective in Into the Woods (which The 5th produced earlier this season). While the score of Into the Woods seamlessly flows from the heartfelt to the Sondheimesque, the shifts in Sweeney are more abrupt. However, his wit is put to good use in songs such as “A Little Priest” in which the characters’ clever scheming aligns with the cleverness of Sondheim’s wordplay.
The cast is one of the best that I’ve seen at The 5th in years. Standouts include Nik Hagen’s charismatic Tobias Ragg and Yusef Seveers’ gorgeous performance as Todd. While I’m sure Seveers was the best actor for the role, casting a Black actor as the revengeful Todd also enhances the show’s political commentary on responding to oppression. This contrasts greatly with other color-conscious casting in the Seattle theater scene; for example, last year, Village Theatre produced Mamma Mia! with a mostly Black cast and creative team. While I disliked some of the production’s creative choices, I appreciated Village’s initiative to portray stories of joy while highlighting underrepresented artistic voices to avoid solely sharing stories of Black trauma. Both types of productions are beneficial in our theater landscape, but the casting in Sweeney is more thoughtfully and smoothly connected to the content of the show.
The 5th has the budget for cinematic scenic design and this production delivers without feeling gratuitous through creative use of design elements. A central turntable reveals different locations, but it is also used to shift the audience’s perspective of the room (e.g., when antagonist Judge Turpin comes to Todd’s barbershop). Likewise, the abstract costuming in a scene set in an asylum makes it more engaging and helps create a genuine creepy tone for the scene. With that said, I was slightly disappointed because no hair or flesh is cut for the audience to see. Beyond thrilling audiences, I believe simulating the transformation of objects onstage rather than making all of the action abstract would enhance the show’s themes and sense of catharsis given that it is centered around the permanence of murder.
Sweeney is a well-structured show, but I do not believe it deserves its perception as a musical theater masterpiece. However, after a season of ups and downs, Woods’ well-executed production proves to Seattle that the 5th deserves its status as our region’s premiere musical theater.
Sweeney Todd took place at The 5th on April 21 - May 14, 2023. For more information see here.