Performers asked their audience to “attend the tale of Sweeney Todd” at the Glimmerglass Festival. What they were really asking, though, was for the audience to attend the tale of a 1960-something church congregation putting on a production of Sweeney Todd in the church’s plain, unremarkable basement.
Sondheim describes his show, “Sweeney,” as “melodramatic with a big ‘m.’” Emotions run high, blood is nearly its own character and the story is rather outrageous. The set for “Sweeney” at Glimmerglass did not match the story’s melodrama. It wasn’t even dramatic (with a small “d”).
The almost-modern set looked like the director wanted to bring “Sweeney” into today’s world, but was too wary to fully commit to a modernization. Rather than immerse the audience in a completely Victorian era show or in a completely contemporary setting, the show bounced back and forth between the two, with clear apprehension to commit to one style and without any obvious pattern.
The show started with congregants using the church’s furnishings as props for “Sweeney” – the parishioners’ chairs served as the walls of Johanna’s room for “Johanna,” one plain wall panel was the front of two separate buildings for another scene. While the simplicity of the set throughout the first act may have been an attempt at a juxtaposition with the drama of the show, it only served as a distraction.
Some outlandish, unnerving and outrageous props did make their way into these plain-looking scenes. Actors in giant bird heads while they twitched and fluttered their arms, Sweeney’s box of razors that gave off a silver glow in a “Pulp Fiction” manner during “My Friends,” Pirelli’s giant scissors and bedazzled suit. These still weren’t enough to immerse the audience in the dark tale of “Sweeney.”
The motivation behind frequent changes from 1960s costumes to Victoria era costumes and back again was as cryptic as the pattern of changes. Some actors wore costumes that looked like 1969 talk show host outfits—Toby during “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir”—and others looked like they belonged in the 1860s.
Any commitment to melodrama in the staging didn’t come out until the second act, but it highlighted the fractured setting of the first act and the second act.
The blood from Sweeney’s first kill was represented by a red light on a panel wall in the first act. In the second act, though, Sweeney’s kills were marked by a splash of blood on the walls. But not every kill had a blood aspect to it.
The audience didn’t leave completely the church basement until the second act, when they were brought into Mrs. Lovett’s renovated pie shop with hot pink baroque wallpaper. The pop of color in the second act is clearly purposeful—a signal to the audience that the meat pie and murder business is going well—but some of the drab details of the church basement remained (the church piano, the 1960s clothing).
The meta-approach of having a show within a show may have been an attempt to prime the audience for a “Sweeney” set 100 years after its original Victorian era setting, but it convoluted any goal of a partial-1960s setting. Instead, it seemed as though a group of 900 or so people stumbled into a community theater’s rehearsal (with superior singers), and was waiting two hours for the show to actually begin, only to be ushered out after the curtain call.