Sweeney Todd is the last show to open in the 14th and final season of Jackie Maxwell's tenure at the head of the Shaw Festival, and the outgoing artistic director is directing Stephen Sondheim's "musical thriller" herself as a swan song.
I'd love to send Maxwell off with the critical equivalent of a standing ovation, as she's certainly been responsible for some memorable, world-class evenings of theatre over the nine seasons I've been reviewing this repertory theatre company in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Her wonderful world premiere of Michel Marc Bouchard's The Divine in 2015, her heartbreaking production of William Inge's Come Back, Little Sheba in 2012 and her exciting rediscovery of Githa Sowerby's The Stepmother in 2008 have stuck with me in particular.
Sweeney Todd doesn't stand with Maxwell's best work, however, and, as it happens, the weaknesses of her production line up with larger lapses in artistic direction at the Shaw that make it clear it is, indeed, time for fresh leadership.
Sondheim's 1979 musical – which Maxwell has moved to a dystopian future and given a steampunk aesthetic by designer Judith Bowden – concerns a barber named Benjamin Barker (Benedict Campbell) who returns to London 15 years after the evil Judge Turpin (Marcus Nance), lusting after his wife, banished him to Australia.
Now using the assumed name Sweeney Todd, he learns from his old neighbour Mrs. Lovett (Corrine Koslo), a down-on-her-luck purveyor of meat pies, that the worst has happened in his absence. Turpin raped his wife, Lucy, who then swallowed poison, and the judge has since raised Todd's daughter Johanna (Kristi Frank) as his ward and intends to marry her.
Soon enough, all Todd can think of is revenge, and, luckily, the smitten Mrs. Lovett has an idea for how they can get rid of the bodies of those who fall in the path of his wrath and razors.
Sweeney Todd has the violent, sensational plot of a Victorian penny dreadful, and a gorgeous score that elevates it to art. Indeed, Sondheim's score is complex and challenging enough that you'll find it, for instance, sung by opera singers at the Glimmerglass Festival in New York State this summer.
Musical director Paul Sportelli's large band is well up to the challenge of Jonathan Tunick's original horror-show orchestrations and so is the young ensemble that chillingly shrieks the recurring Ballad of Sweeney Todd. (The sound mix was not always ideal in quieter moments on opening night, however.)
As Anthony, a sailor friend of Todd's who falls for Johanna from afar, Jeff Irving is excellent (as he was playing the same role in Bob Baker's more thrilling 2010 production at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton). He has a voice that does justice to the lovely, swooping melody of Johanna and gives the hero intriguing hints of a darker side. As Turpin, Nance uses an unsettling bass-baritone to full effect, while Kyle Blair pulls out his highly polished operetta tricks in the small comic role of a rival barber named Pirelli.
Alas, as the street urchin Toby, Andrew Broderick's sweet-sounding rendition of Not While I'm Around is undercut by his cringeworthy characterization – all hunched shoulders and irritatingly squeaky voice.
But it's the lead role where Maxwell's mostly blood-free production truly disappoints. At the beginning, Benedict Campbell, an actor better known for his non-musical roles, seems to bring a fresh note to the role of Sweeney: hope.
Even though he sings about London as "a hole in the world like a great black pit," you get the sense that he could be on the path toward redemption, not revenge.
But as the action progresses, Campbell doesn't sufficiently shade his singing, and his struggles seem less with the character's grief and demonic impulses than with the score itself. With much evident effort, he squeezes through, but the trade-off is that he's not particularly funny or frightening, just flavourless, a surprising descriptor for a Sweeney.
Corrine Koslo is more effective as Mrs. Lovett, occasionally even touching, but her comic timing goes oddly absent in songs such as A Little Priest, which should whip the audience up into a cannibalistic frenzy, but here seems a tedious pre-intermission parade of puns.
Over the course of the past 14 seasons, Maxwell has expanded the Shaw Festival well beyond it's formerly myopic mandate, and it was she who first introduced musical theatre to its 856-seat flagship Festival Theatre to keep the box office strong.
But while she's done necessary work to diversify the repertoire at a time when namesake playwright Bernard Shaw's stock has been falling, she's been stubbornly slow and tentative in diversifying the ensemble that performs that repertoire.
In the case of musicals, that means actors who aren't quite up to the task at hand, at least not at the level the Shaw strives — and charges — for. Last year, Maxwell signed off on the decision to give a long-standing company member the lead role in Sweet Charity on the Festival stage, and she proved not up to its triple-threat demands. Now, again, we see the hit-or-miss Campbell getting a role for a really strong singer that I can't imagine him earning in an open audition.
While Maxwell's loyalty to certain artists and the keeping of couples and families together may have made her beloved by some, audience members now forking over an astonishing $240 for "marquee seats" at Sweeney have a right to expect musical-theatre performers on par with what you'd see at Mirvish Productions or on Broadway.
There are a lot of excuses offered for why attendance has shrunk at the Shaw Festival and why it's had trouble staying in the black, and I'm sure many of them are valid. I can't help but think the insularity of the place has played its part, however.
In this respect, the Shaw Festival's hiring of a complete outsider as the next artistic director – the British director Tim Carroll – could be exactly what is needed. We'll see.
Sweeney Todd continues at the Shaw's Festival Theatre to Oct. 19 (shawfest.com).