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PlayMakers' 'Sweeney Todd' a frightening, complex hit

PlayMakers Repertory Company debuted its production of “Sweeney Todd” Saturday night in the Paul Green Theater. Directed by Brooklyn-based director Jen Wineman, Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece concludes the company’s season and runs through April 23.

The show starts abruptly with an ear-piercing whistle that makes audience members either cringe or jump out of their seats. Immediately, the mood is set, and it isn’t cheery. The ensemble appears, and later throughout the show, as a haunting Greek chorus that introduces Sweeney Todd and his plight. It’s clear that Wineman spent time adding unscripted details to almost every scene, adding ensemble members going about their busy lives on the seedy streets of London. In one scene, a young mother and her daughter play hopscotch on the street, adding color to the world and making it burst with life.

PlayMakers sought out a powerhouse team when casting the production. Broadway and Orange is the New Black’s Annie Golden stars as quirky leading lady Mrs. Lovett beside Broadway veteran David St. Louis as the show’s titled-lead. Golden shines in many scenes such as “Wait” and “Not While I’m Around” — her charming quirkiness lights up the stage and she nails the comedic timing. At times, however, she seemed unprepared and stumbled over lines or came in half a measure late when singing, as she did in “A Little Priest,” the show-stopping end to Act I that, in this production, lacked luster. She recovered when these slips happened, but it was clear that her character wasn’t engaged. The role is a daunting challenge that makes or breaks the show and in these weak moments it lacked a professionalism that PlayMakers is known for.

David St. Louis as Todd lives up to frightening expectations in “My Friends” and “Epiphany,” making the audience simultaneously cringe while sympathizing with him. However, understanding his songs — which advance the plot — was a constant fight. His performance and commitment to character was spot on, but his delivery of crucial plot points left something to be desired, taking away from the complex plot. Other notable stars include UNC professor and PlayMakers’ regular Julie Fishell as Beggar Women — she provides comic relief from an often dark plot, begging for change desperately to characters and audience members alike and lurking in the background of the streets. 

High school student Mya Ison sang Johanna’s “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” and “Kiss Me” with the grace and ease of a professional singer, stealing the show when onstage. Ray Dooley, UNC professor and PlayMakers actor, stood out as Judge, the show’s villain, playing into over-the-top, comic-book nature of his character.

Costume designer Bill Brewer created a multi-dimensional Victorian world that could be straight out of a Tim Burton movie. Bold pattern choices make the elements stand apart from traditional 19th century attire, but modernize designs in a way that respects tradition. Mrs. Lovett’s Act II dress closely resembles Alice in Wonderland’s Queen — a fresh take on antiquity that immediately updates the show. The animal heads used during “Poor Thing” demonize and disguise the party-goers, making the scene feel like a bizarre nightmare and starkly contrasting with Lucy’s pure white gown. The production design team worked together seamlessly to make the world come to life, focusing on red, white, and black motifs that work to enhance the plot.

“Sweeney Todd” is a highly anticipated production because it closes out PlayMakers’ season and is largely hallowed as one of the most iconic and difficult-to-produce Broadway musicals. The production itself holds itself to PlayMakers’ standards, employing the most qualified in the business and developing the show in a unique but traditional way. Where it fell flat, was with its projected biggest asset, its stars. Perhaps the issues will straighten themselves out as the show’s run continues over the next few weeks. 

In any case, the show is overwhelmingly a success. The perfect storm of gore and comedy make for a unique show that, despite its weaknesses, will be enjoyed by all UNC students and community members alike who have the opportunity to go see it.

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The Daily Tar Heel's 2024 Music Edition