Up-and-comer gets deliciously down and dirtySince making its debut in January 2007, Fighting Chance Productions has evolved from fledgling musical-theatre company to youthful powerhouse, with memorable offerings like 2009’s Rent and a campy production of Forbidden Broadway. Now, just a few short months after mounting an acclaimed production of Hair, the little company that could makes a bold play for a spot among the theatre scene’s heavy hitters (Arts Club, Electric Company, Playhouse) — but on a fraction of the budget. With its production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, it has scored its greatest triumph yet.
A gruesome tale of injustice, revenge, and blood-soaked madness, the Stephen Sondheim musical revolves around Sweeney Todd (Alex McMorran), an escaped convict who returns to London 15 years after being wrongfully imprisoned by the lecherous Judge Turpin (Arne Larsen). Todd returns to his former home above Mrs. Lovett’s (Cathy Wilmot) pie shop, where the pie-maker reveals that Todd’s wife went mad, took poison, and left their child, Johanna (Krista Gibbard), to be raised as the judge’s ward. Mrs. Lovett soon agrees to help Todd exact revenge on the judge, encouraging him to reopen his barber shop, thus kick-starting a ravenous murder spree and an ingenious, if revolting, method of disposing of the bodies.
Meanwhile, Johanna, now 16 years old, is a caged bird, locked away from society in Turpin’s house. From her window she catches the eye of Anthony (Chris Harvey), a boy incidentally indebted to Todd for saving his life, and they fall in love, much to Turpin’s chagrin. The old judge decides to marry Johanna, sparking a plot by the teens to escape his clutches. When it fails, Joanna is sent to an asylum.
Todd helps Anthony break her out, and subsequently lures Turpin back to his shop for a bloody climax, wherein all of the characters collide — some dead, some alive — in Mrs. Lovett’s basement.
Fittingly, McMorran and Wilmot command the audience’s attention at every turn. McMorran’s Todd has a crazed glee in his eyes; a hulking, haunted step; and a voice that sends shivers up the spine, especially when he’s reunited with his razors (“My Friends”) or recounting the horror that befell him at the hands of the judge (“The Barber and His Wife”). Wilmot neatly shifts from hilarious to hopeful, sharing her delusions about a future with Todd (“By the Sea”), followed by a heartbreakingly empty promise to protect her young ward, Toby (“Not While I’m Around”).
In addition to their individual performances, the duo are mesmerizing when they share the stage together, particularly during the hilariously grotesque “God, That’s Good!” They also amp up the sexual tension between their characters, adding depth to the depravity of their shared bloodlust.
Even the insta-romance between Anthony and Johanna, usually Sweeney Todd’s weakest element, gets a new lease on life. Harvey and Gibbard infuse their characters’ longing with a profound sense of urgency, elevating songs like “Kiss Me” from saccharine to substantive. Gibbard, particularly, is a revelation, hitting Sondheim’s difficult-to-sing syncopated notes with assured confidence.
Director (and Fighting Chance founding artistic director) Ryan Mooney challenges himself yet again with a small stage and an overflowing cast. And yet he has full control over the proceedings: the music, the set pieces (sparse and effective), and the actors move together in perfect synchronization under his watchful eye. His Sweeney Todd is a masterful marriage of music, melodrama, and the macabre. This young gun is blazing. Able to achieve so much with so little, Fighting Chance should have the bigger, more established theatre companies looking over their shoulders in admiration, for now, and with a little trepidation in the years to come.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street runs to Oct. 30 at Jericho Arts Centre (1675 Discovery), 8pm (Wed-Sat). 7:30pm (Tues). Tickets $20-$30 from FightingChanceProductions.ca.