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Idaho Shakespeare Festival (ISF) presented their preview performance of Sweeney Todd last night. One expects a glitch or two in a preview performance, but if there were any, I was too captured to notice them. I’ve had a special affinity for Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street since I worked back stage on a Boise Little Theater production directed by local genius Scott Beseman many years ago. I was hugely disappointed by the Tim Burton movie with Johnny Depp in 2007 and curious how ISF would handle the material.

The musical is a challenge, much like a Charles Dickens book. The plot centers around a legendary serial killer who slit the throats of his barbershop patrons then slid them down a chute to the basement where their bodies were ground up and cooked into tasty meat pies. Given the poverty and hunger in London during the early 1800’s, the tale takes on a note of possibility.

Master lyricist and composer, Stephen Sondheim, adapted various existing versions of the legend by developing a back story to humanize the demon barber and his lady friend, Mrs. Lovett. Sondheim’s score is as challenging to innocent ears as is the story itself. Loud whistles and screeching and clashing dissonance recreate the dirty noise of 19th century London. After getting over the initial shock, the audience warms to catchy rhythms and lyrics of ballads and arias that explain the story and nurture sympathy for characters who are victims of  poverty, deception, and treachery. Sondheim’s brilliance is the mix of dark, ribald humor that twists around grim, historical references. This musical takes off where Oliver Twist ends.

Actor Tom Ford delivers a terrifyingly conniver in his Sweeney Todd right up until the wrenching discovery of his tragic mistake in the final scene. As Mrs. Lovett, Sara Bruner ranges from evil, to vampish, to coquettish, to almost maternal; her voice was strong and brilliant. Jodi Dominick, disguised under layers of rags and grime, plays the hapless beggar woman’s whose final entrance seals the tragedy of the play. The entire cast was spot on and professional—a delight to behold.

Director Victoria Bussert rises to the unique staging challenges that come with outdoor theatre productions. For the most part, the singers’ voices carry well, the set design is cleverly simple, and the costumes are outstanding. From a partially buried pit, a handful of musicians manage to produce big sound under the direction of Matthew Webb.  It must be difficult to nail the lighting on a set whose ambient light changes from late afternoon to dark of night. The backdrop of Boise’s signature foothills dipping into golden shadows threatens to distract an unengaged audience. But during this preview, all eyes were glued to the tragic love story unfolding on stage.

Sweeney Todd runs through September 1st.  If you’re anywhere near Boise this summer, Idaho Shakespeare Festival is where to be. Schedule and ticket information can be found at their website. Be prepared to be amazed.

Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.
His skin was pale and his eye was odd.
He shaved the faces of gentlemen
who never thereafter were heard of again.
He trod a path that few have trod
Did Sweeney Todd?
The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
He kept a shop in London town.
Of fancy clients and good renown
and what if none of their souls were saved
they went to their maker impeccably shaved.
By Sweeney,
by Sweeney Todd
The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Lyrics from http://www.stlyrics.com/lyrics/sweeneytodd/theballadofsweeneytoddprologue.htm