You’ve heard it said before, “It feels as if we are in the room with them” — a turn of phrase often synonymous with authenticity of set dressing or acting chops. When literally applied, it’s fitting of the sensory immersion displayed in the basement of Wicker Park’s Chopin Theater. Audience members sit arena style below billowing plumes of smoke; suspended antique light fixtures and frames; surrounded by remnants of tattered cloth and furniture past its prime and era.
The effect of such detail produces an eeriness that hangs in the air, a necessary component of any revival of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” — the Broadway darling seeing the lights of the stage once more, this time in one of Chicago’s favorite intimate theaters — running now through November 6. The production is brought to life by Derek Van Barham, the Producing Artistic Director who Directed and Choreographed the production and Nick Sula, who helmed Music Direction.
In true tribute to the revivals that have come before it — and as intended by its original creators Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler — this rendition plays heavily on the harmony between gut-wrenching horror and heartbreak, and witty strokes of comedy. Our story opens with the macabre neuroses and ruminations of a man wronged, Sweeney Todd (Kevin Webb), as we collectively navigate the twisted realities of 1845 London. Comedic relief is injected boisterously by the show-stealing Miss Lovett (Caitlin Jackson), and with the help of a cast rife with the perversion and confliction that are the hallmarks of this show.
A true credit to Kokandy Productions’ interpretation is their creative use of space and alternative props to further convince us of this tall tale, that feels all too real as ensemble members walk through rows of seating and stare into the crowd; the fourth wall left only to the imagination of the audience. The square, four-pillared stage is bare of any set dressing or fixtures, which entirely lends itself to the manipulation of cast and crew. But what is omnipresent is the stage lighting display so fitted to the production that it changes with even the most minute shift in emotion. Whether it is the killing floor or the streets of “the great black pit” that is London, theater-goers are swept along with the ever-increasing pace of the production — where chaos, misunderstanding and violence are critical elements.
Any cast member of any production is tasked with, above all else, conviction of character. And truer words could not be written of the core actors and ensemble members of this show. In alphabetical order:
Joel Arreola (he/him, ensemble, Toby u/s), Brittney Brown (she/her, ensemble, Lovett u/s), Ethan Carlson (he/him, ensemble, u/s Turpin), Stephanie Chiodras (she/her, ensemble, Beggar Woman u/s), Isabel Cecilia García (they/them, Beggar Woman), Josiah Haugen (he/him, Beadle Bamford), Caitlin Jackson (she/her, Mrs. Lovett), Christopher Johnson (he/him, Judge Turpin, Sweeney u/s), Nikki Krzebiot (she/her, ensemble, Johanna u/s), Charlie Mann (he/him, ensemble, Beadle u/s), Chamaya Moody (she/her, Johanna), Patrick O’Keefe (he/him, Tobias Rigg), Daniel Rausch (he/him, ensemble, Anthony u/s), Quinn Rigg (he/him, Adolfo Pirelli, Jonas Fogg), Ryan Stajmiger (he/him, Anthony Hope) and Kevin Webb (he/him, Sweeney Todd).
Swings including: Tyler DeLoatch (he/him, u/s ensemble), Nathan Kabara (he/they, ensemble u/s) — who was on stage during the September 16 production for which this review is based on — and Angela Yu (she/her, ensemble u/s).
Neurotically vengeful, madness driven, lust inspired — the lowest tiers of human morality all find a home in the respective performances of the cast. But it isn’t all foul — in moments of tenderness between Todd and his forlorn love or in the beat-by-beat persistence of Lovett’s humor, the show remains far from one-dimensional.
Devotees to Sondheim or the greatness of Broadway are certain to be entertained if not thrilled by this production. And as for newcomers to the genre or the story of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, proceed with caution but trust you are in the midst of a performance that can hold its own against a 40-plus-year-old catalogue of revivals. Though, as the production’s emcee said of the theatrical horrors to come, “You do know what show you’re about to see, right?”
For more on “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” upcoming performances, tickets and general information, visit the Kokandy Productions website.
For those who wish to support Chicago’s art and culture scene, consider donating to the Chopin Theater — a registered 501(c)(3) organization that helps keep the pulse of local theater alive. More information can be found on the Chopin Theater website and their donation page.
Chopin Theater, 1543 W. Division St.
More from Better:
- How to Help Those Affected by Hurricane Fiona and Aid Response Efforts in Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic
- Opera Festival Brings New Opera Experiences to Chicago
- New in Town: Plant-Forward Spots, New Orleans in Hyde Park, a Tiki Bar in Rosemont and a European-Style Cafe in Evanston
Margaret Smith is a Chicago-based writer and editor with a passion for socio-political storytelling about their community. They are a graduate of Columbia College Chicago.