On Jan. 27, the frigid winter air set a fittingly ominous tone for the opening night of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” at Amherst College’s Powerhouse. As the show started, there was flash of amber light and the sound of an organ cast a somber mood over the audience. The ensemble, dressed in all black, walked down the stairs and around the perimeter of the performance hall. A sharp scream rang through the room. With the sound of the scream, the audience met Sweeney Todd.
Director A. Scott Parry, who has worked with the New York City Opera, along with Amherst student stage manager Sophina Flores ’20 and producer Frank Tavares ’18, presented the Victorian musical with an emphasis on the psychology of the characters. The show addressed themes regarding the value of human life, loss of innocence, the mistreatment of women and ethical dilemmas.
The production tells the story of Benjamin Barker, a former barber who was wrongfully convicted of a crime, and his return to his London home under a new alias, Sweeney Todd, after 15 years of exile. He aims to seek revenge on the judge who sent him away. Along the way, Todd meets Mrs. Lovett, an untrustworthy older woman who is the owner of a terrible meat-pie shop. Through Mrs. Lovett, Todd learns some surprising information about his past.
After Todd accidentally kills his former employee, Adolfo Pirelli, Mrs. Lovett implants the idea of using human bodies for meat pies. Soon after this, Todd and Lovett become business partners, with Todd killing his barbershop clients and Mrs. Lovett using their bodies for pastries. It is only at the end of the show that Todd realizes the ethical implications of his actions when he accidentally kills his wife.
Ramona Celis ’19 played Sweeney Todd, adding depth and humanity to the inhumane actions of his character. His performance showed maturity and sophistication. After Pirelli’s death, Todd looks at the murder weapon, his razor, and through a pained expression, indicates an intense level of guilt. Similarly, in Act Two, Todd sings a duet with the judge, “Johanna Reprise.” In this scene, Todd steps away from a monster and morphs into a father figure. He is disgusted with the idea of the judge planning to marry his daughter, and he conveys this with a menacing tone. Overall, Celis’s acting was extremely well-controlled and authentic.
Although the cast was only comprised of eighteen students, every musical number completely filled the space. The ensemble was consistently strong throughout each piece. The intense harmonies in “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” were executed well with special care to vocal technique. Similarly, all soloists were equally strong. All of the soloists projected well without the aid of microphones.
Celis’s part in the musical number, “No Place Like London,” was sung with great intensity and impressive vocal control. The song “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” was sung sweetly by Anna Plummer ’20 with the gentle innocence of Johanna’s character. Plummer’s light soprano voice rang with clear perfection throughout the Powerhouse. The role of Anthony was played by Caleb Brook, whose tenor in “Johanna” was smooth and controlled.
In addition to the singing, the strong instrumentation played a crucial role in making the show’s opening night a success. Amherst’s Symphony Orchestra, directed by Mark Lane Swanson, guided the soloists during moments of hesitation. Their ability to communicate with the cast shows their professional-level talent.
Overall, Amherst Musical’s rendition of Sweeney Todd was strong and artistic. The minimalist aesthetic of the Powerhouse emphasized the story and thematic elements of the musical. Despite the advisory warning on the program, the musical’s depiction of murder and sexual assault focused more on the dynamics of power in human interaction than the graphic details. Todd’s murders emphasized the control he had over his clients in that moment. While there were some moments of hesitation during the show, the cast still did an amazing job.