by Terrance Mc Arthur
Details at the end of this review on how to get a ticket discount for the show!
Feeling a little bloodthirsty? Looking for a night of musical theater? Have I got a show for you! It’s at the Ice House Theater in Visalia, where the Visalia Players are presenting a chiller if ever there was one—Sweeney Todd.
It’s an old story—some people say it really happened, but nobody’s ever found proof. It’s been a penny dreadful in the nineteenth century, plays, movies, Russian punk music, and Stephen Sondheim wrote songs with a script by Hugh Wheeler, and it became a Broadway musical in 1979.So, this is the story—There was this barber, and this rich guy—a judge—wanted the barber’s wife. He got the barber sent off to Australia as a prisoner, attacked the wife, then “adopted” the barber’s little girl. This barber escapes after fifteen years, and he comes back to London, looking for revenge against the rich guy and the guy who did his dirty work. He sets himself up as a barber, like he was before, but under a new name, and he starts killing people by slitting their throats with his razor. What should he do with the bodies? Downstairs is a pie shop, so the lady there bakes the meat from his victims into pies, and it becomes the new fad, but people don’t know they’re eating people! And that’s just the first act!
On Broadway, Len Cariou played Sweeney Todd, and Angela Lansbury starred as Mrs. Lovett, the pie lady. Christine Baranski, Patti LuPone and Imelda Staunton have also played her part. George Hearn and Brian Stokes Mitchell have swung Sweeney’s razor, and Josh Groban is currently leading a revival of the show on Broadway, while Johnny Depp played the killer barber in Tim Burton’s 2007 film of the musical.In Visalia, Joseph Ham is an electrifying Mr. Todd (By the way, in German, “Tod” is the word for “Death.”), intense and feral. His normally innocent smile seems to have developed a cynical sneer. His voice powers its way through Sondheim’s jungle of words, and you can hear every syllable, quite an accomplishment. This is a demanding role, and someone should buy him a case of cough drops to keep him going through the five weeks of the show.
Phae Elfont is Mrs. Lovett, with a touch of Bette Midler in Hocus Pocus, a smidgen of Carol Burnett, a drop of Popeye’s Olive Oyl, and a sprinkling of Angela Lansbury for good measure. Where Sweeney is driven by revenge, Lovett is in it for the money…and a little bit of puppy love. Her big numbers are “The Worst Pies in London,” badmouthing her own cooking, and “A Little Priest” with Sweeney, describing how different people would fit into pies. She’s awkwardly beguiling.
Many people think of Sweeney Todd as a villain, but the real embodiment of evil in the story is Judge Turpin, played by Chase Stubblefield, who performed the same part in a 2018 Selma Arts Center production directed by…wait for it…Joseph Ham. Stubblefield knows what he is doing with the character, and he knows how to slide from judicial authority to the predatory grooming of a young woman.The young woman in question is Becca Coffey-Godfrey as Johanna, Sweeney’s daughter, and Judge Turpin’s ward. What a major-league voice she has, Her costumes make her the Belle of the Ball.
Jayromy Mercado, who was goofiness personified in Selma’s School of Rock, is Anthony, the young sailor who rescued Sweeney at sea and brought him to London, only to fall in love with Johanna. He has always had a good voice, but he gets to be romantic in this role.
Michael Westpy is the sinister Beadle who carries out the judge’s orders with gusto. James Sack is Pirelli, the competing barber who knows more about Sweeney than is good for him. Henry Van Gemert is Tobias, Pirelli’s former assistant, who looks on Mrs. Lovett as a mother figure. Christa Reiber is a madwoman-beggar who gets inappropriate…maybe as a defense mechanism.
Kelly Ventura directed, and the pace does not sag. A special mention must be made of The Barber’s Chair, a piece of furniture and torture that has performed in productions up and down the West Coast, on loan from PCPA in Santa Maria.The Ice House Theatre is at 410 E. Race Ave., Visalia. Sweeney Todd runs through May 28. For tickets go to the website. Go see it. Stay away from the meat pies, but the snack bar has cookies that are really sharp. Enter discount code todd241 to get a buy one ticket get one free deal!
If you love local theatre, be sure to check out Mysteryrat’s Maze Podcast, which features mysteries read by local actors. You can find the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play, and also on podbean. Both Kelly Ventura and Joseph Ham have been featured in past podcast episodes.
Check out more theatre reviews & other local entertainment articles in our Arts & Entertainment section. You can also find more theatre coming up on KRL’s Local Theatre event page.