Review | Millennial’s ‘Sweeney Todd’ Is Razor Sharp

By J.E. Ballantyne Jr.

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd,” is the often-sung phrase heard by the audience as they wade their way through dark, misty and foggy London in 1785. The Hopewell Theatre served well for said location as the Millennial Theatre Company offered up the Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler musical, “Sweeney Todd-The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”

Details is the key word for this stunning production. From the very moment you enter “London,” the audience is immersed in fog amid pending gloom, doom and murder. The Tony Award winning musical follows Todd on his quest for revenge after being wrongfully imprisoned. Director Joe Asente has pulled out all of the stops and has put a production on the Hopewell stage that will be remembered for some time.

Leading this fearsome cast of characters is Tyler Stouffer as Sweeney Todd. A powerfully built Stouffer adds a cringe-worthy element to the role. Not only does the character carry dominance to every scene but so does Stouffer’s overwhelming presence. His intensity in the role speaks volumes for not only Stouffer but also for the magnitude of the production.

He is able to grip the audience by the throat and pull them into his lowly dark world. Not only does he offer strong acting ability but vocally he also impresses. His opening appearance in “Ballad of Sweeney Todd” is a precursor of what is to come. He is in your face and he makes you feel the depth of his loneliness and his despair. Other highlights are “My Friends” and “A Little Priest.” But he shines in “Pretty Women,” a song with a beautiful melody that belies his dark intent.

Opposite Stouffer is Brandy Johanntges as Mrs. Lovett. She owns a meat pie shop that makes “the worst pies in London.”

This is a made to order role for Johanntges, who doesn’t miss a beat the whole evening. Lovett is a much more comical role than Todd (no laughs with him), and Johanntges makes the most of it. Acting, timing and superb vocals all carry the character and this is no easy Sondheim score. Lovett is the humor that gives the audience a respite from the morose and grim Todd. She lightens the mood with “Worst Pies In London,” “A Little Priest,” and “By the Sea.” But she shows another side in the heartwarming “Not While I’m Around.”

Amid all of the darkness, however, is a love story that brews between Johanna (Hannah Marzano) and Anthony (George Maillis). Marzano is perfectly cast in the young ingenue role. Her lilting voice and presence make for a Johanna that the audience takes to right away with “Green Finch.” Stouffer may grab the audience by the throat but Marzano infiltrates their hearts.

Likewise, Maillis as Anthony, turns in a wonderful performance as a young naive sailor who is smitten with Johanna at first sight. He is in top form with “Johanna,” which is a welcome reprise later in the show. His strong acting along with pleasing vocals help to make the couple a nice break from the terror happening around them.

Sydney Campbell is spot on as the deranged Beggar Woman as she pops in and out of the fog in half-crazed rants. Her energy and physical movements made the character very believable. Pirelli, played by Ben Doss, was portrayed well but seemed to lack some of the con man and slickness that really makes the character work. Add to that a mustache that refused to stay put, and made for a distraction.

His sidekick, so to speak, Tobias, played by Finn O’Hara, was a little departure from the ordinary. O’Hara took a bit of a different approach to the character than what is usually used. It worked but seemed to be missing a link as the end of the show approached. He excelled in “Not While I’m Around,” a song which is both uplifting and dark at the same time.

Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford, played by Chris Harben and Edward Bazzell, respectively, were both strong characters with strong acting and good vocals. Harben, although convincing, didn’t tap the audience’s “hate button” quite enough. Turpin is a corrupt and degenerate public official which the audience needs to despise. I wasn’t quite all the way there. Andy Scott turns in a good performance as Jonas Fogg in the madhouse at Bedlam.

“Sweeney Todd” has a powerfully talented ensemble that carries not only some transitions but also supplies vital information about the plot. Their intensity, energy, and vocal power supplied very strong support. They were almost an added character to the proceedings.

Besides a very professional cast, the show is powered by an unbelievably strong and outstanding technical element. The Hopewell is a small venue but the tech in “Sweeney Todd” was big-theater quality. Production design by Joe Asente makes use of every nook and cranny of the Hopewell stage. Two large revolving set pieces plus some glide-ons made you think you were in a much larger space.

Set design with a multi-functional set was well executed and set changes were choreographed so well that it was hard to believe so much was done in so little time. Kudos to actors as well as stage hands on fast and smooth set changes. Lighting, which was uncredited but I will assume it was Asente, was off the charts – dramatic, moody, colorful, and extremely effective as it glistened off of barber razors and filtered its way through fog.

Music, although unfortunately recorded, did give the production a full orchestral sound. Sadly, many times it overpowered actors’ vocals and blared as underscoring. Overheard comments at intermission confirmed that it wasn’t just me. This seems to be an ongoing problem with local musicals.

Asente has hit yet another mark in the history of The Millennial Theatre Company. They consistently turn out a good product – this one was exceptional. Music direction by Rosie Bresson and Cari Auth was very well done. Dealing with a difficult and complex Sondheim score can be a very daunting task. They met and exceeded expectations.

Brian Palumbo’s costumes were well designed and fit the period. They added the rustic, downtrodden element to each character in dark, foggy London. A well-done must also go out to Michelle Jalbert for wigs. Blood effects were also first rate and added to the realism.

A final bow to Brandy Johanntges and Edward Bazzell for turning an unexpected mishap on stage into a memorable scene. You play whatever happens, and they did. Oh, the perils of live theater!

Halloween is just a little over one week away. As we get closer to that spooky night, many Halloween happenings will be taking place. If you want to see first class professional theater and a show you will long remember, then – “attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.”

Sweeney Todd will continue Oct. 21, 27, 28, 31, Nov. 3, 4 at 7:30 p.m.; Oct. 22, 29 at 2 p.m.

Pictured at top: Tyler Stouffer plays the title role in Millennial Theatre’s production of “Sweeney Todd.”

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.