Ultra Vires


Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street—In Concert

The Demon! Barber! of Fleet! Street!

Murder, cannibalism, complicity, maybe even fraud and trespass—there are crimes galore in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The urban legend of the murderous barber came to life in Ember Island Players’ semi-staged production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd

Some of the scariest parts of the infamous tale feature a morally questionable judge and a highly discretionary police force. Unscrupulous and arbitrary legal systems are utterly horrifying to me. 

The show had a two-night run in the cozy yet dramatic space that is the Victoria College Chapel, a stone’s throw away from the Faculty of Law. It ran February 27–28 and raised over $2000 for U of T’s Iranian Student Memorial Scholarship Fund. (The fund is matched 3:1 by the university and honours the memory of those who died in January on Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, including eight U of T students.) 

Directed by Shannon Dunbar, the production was a faithful telling of the tale of Sweeney Todd’s bloody quest for vengeance. 

A very determined Sweeney Todd (Nam Nguyen) schemed along with the lovely Mrs. Lovett (Jocelyn Kraynyk), looking for a way to seek revenge on the corrupt Judge Turpin (Winston Sullivan), all while making crowd-pleasing meat pies, rotating through a number of special fillings—“lawyer’s rather nice!” Kraynyk’s vocals were enrapturing. 

In the meantime, Judge Turpin schemed with The Beadle (Michael Manning) to marry his ward Johanna (Gabby Liao-McPherson), and to keep away Anthony Hope (Michael Henley), who also had his heart set on Johanna. Liao-McPherson’s trilling voice hit all the high notes as she seemed to float above the story’s bitterness and grief. 

Rival barber Adolfo Pirelli (Daniel Goldman) brought comic relief with his cringy ostentatiousness, contrasting Todd’s cynicism. The hardened Todd was quite a departure from Nguyen’s usual campy, ad-libbing characters. It was refreshing to see Nguyen’s acting range in his masterful representation of Todd. 

The rest of the cast rounded out a dynamic group of characters, and the spooky ensemble was employed to great effect. They shook the floors of the chapel when they stomped down the aisles, and they induced goosebumps when they spun up the aisles. 

All of this took place before a pared-down, minimal set. There was no set, really. The 19-person orchestra sat centre stage, providing the backdrop to the main action. 

There was lots of innovative staging involved. The lighting was low-tech—there were no spotlights or floodlights, no fine-tuning, just basic on-and-off switches. The bare furnishings were no impediment to presenting the story. Rather, it enhanced the impact of the swells of music and soaring voices, showcasing the lyrical artistry. 

At times, the orchestra overpowered the voices, and some parts were hard to follow, but I didn’t mind. My imagination ran wild, filling in the visual scenery in my mind’s eye. 

At a time when arts budgets are being slashed, this was an ambitious show to put on, especially since Sweeney is often expensive to stage. Dunbar, along with friends Kevin Yue (producer) and Kevin Vuong (music director), wanted to give their community a chance to stage the brilliant music and epic story of Sweeney, and to bring the show to a community which might not otherwise have the chance to see it performed live. With a solid artistic team, a 19-person orchestra, a 10-person cast, and 13-person ensemble, this was a big undertaking. This production comprised students and recent alumni from U of T and Ryerson University. 

Sweeney was the fifth show staged by the Ember Island Players Theatre. They are a student club based at U of T’s Victoria College, originally named Hotake Theatre (a play on the words “hot take”). 

The group was founded when students noticed a lack of representation in theatre productions on campus and plays in general. As a result, a group of friends banded together to start a drama society with a focus on Asian and Pacific Islander narratives. They stage original works by POC playwrights, as well as works led by POC creatives. 

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