Shave and a haircut => ragout!

Red Meat from Snapshots Collective in site-specific, immersive "Sweeney Todd"

Gastown cuisine -- Kate & Sidney with a side of head cheese and toe jam. Photo: Snapshots Collective

Good thing Snapshots Collective dished up the potpies before their brilliant, immersive production of Sweeney Todd.

The alternating belly laughs and stomach-curdling screams would not have helped digestion during the show, despite the site-specific setting in a Gastown replica of a 19th century London pie shop. And the three-hour operetta’s anthropophagous after-taste could dampen anyone’s appetite for a midnight supper.

As a stage script, Steven Sondheim’s 1979 masterpiece works at many levels. There’s gore enough to gratify the most Halloween-addled fright addict. For Anglophile connoisseurs of Victoriana it’s a vintage “penny dreadful.” A postmodern deconstructionist might read it as a wry parable of cannibalistic capitalism. To a classically inclined dramaturge (like Sondheim himself) it limns a tragic obsession.

Or, to an MBA like me, it presents a paradigm of the promise and pitfalls of vertical integration. The case study starts out as a turn-around success story.

Serving up “the worst pies in London,” slatternly Mrs. Lovett (Colleen Winton) can’t make a go of her Fleet Street eatery: no meat and no customers. But both problems resolve themselves when she partners with her upstairs neighbour, “Demon Barber” Sweeney Todd (Warren Kimmel).

Their integration is literally vertical. He’s rigged his barber chair with a trapdoor that feeds straight into her bake house. That way, as soon as he’s slit a patron’s throat, he can dispatch the cadaver right into her mincemeat grinder for that special je ne sais quoi that turns her dainties into a sudden citywide gastronomic sensation.

It’s a strikingly modern business model: the customer is the product, much like Facebook, YouTube or, for that matter, the Vancouver Observer – any ad-based social media platform that depends on “selling eyeballs.” Except the Todd-Lovett combine sells the whole rest of the anatomy, too.

So down the Fleet Street pie hole goes a panoply of potboiler personae: a corrupt judge (Stephen Aberle) and his toadying beadle sidekick (Damon Calderwood); a willowy ingénue (Rachel Park) and her naïve young swain (Alex Nicoll); a half-mad, beggarly streetwalker (Caitlin Clugston); a foppish, faux-Italian charlatan (Jonathan Winsey) and his dim-witted gofer (Oliver Castillo).

All these stock characters are fatally linked through the melodrama of the barber’s long-ago arrest and banishment on trumpery charges. Returning incognito decades later, he sets out to ensnare the malefactors that done him wrong. In the process he unwittingly undoes his own nearest and dearest, whom he no longer recognizes nor even much cares about anymore in his single-minded pursuit of vengeance.

To symbolize the inexorable grind of all this karmic machinery, the original 1979 production of Sweeney Todd set the scene in the alienating milieu of an iconic 19th century “dark Satanic mill,” importing a whole Rhode Island iron foundry to the Broadway stage for steam punk authenticity.

Director Chris Adams of Vancouver’s own Snapshots Collective has come up with a much simpler and equally elegant solution to enmesh us in his Demon Barber’s obsession – a dingy recreation of Lovett’s diner, complete with piping hot savoury pies (pre-ordered with your ticket at $9.50 apiece, veg or non-veg, or $11.50 for vegan – an oddly Left Coast take on cannibal cuisine).

With spectators bellied right up to the stage (which doubles as Lovett’s lunchroom table) or crammed into bench seating reaching back into the narrow Water Street storefront, everyone in the 56-member audience gets up close and personal with the players. We see Kimmel’s jaws clench with blood-lust, feel the sweat of Aberle’s guilt-racked concupiscence, savour each tart tripthong of Winton’s cockney patter, practically smell the unctuosity of Winsey’s pomade.

Any inch not given over to audience seating is coopted as performance space. Actors erupt down all the aisles and even from the bathroom. Sometimes they make their exits right out the front door onto Water Street (where a street sleeper at the doorstep snores unruffled right through it all).

Set designer Sandy Margaret’s ingenious layout serves as a percussion instrument in its own right, augmenting music director Wendy Bross Stuart’s keyboard-clarinet-violin combo. The platforms and catwalks creak and thump in time with choreographer Nicole Spinola’s rhythmically deployed seven-member choristers.

In lighting designer Andie Lloyd’s moody spots and candle glow, costumier Emily Fraser’s understated Victoriana gives everyone the spooky, vaguely accusatory look of a faded tintype. So when the players sprinkled amongst us abruptly cut loose with a scream, the whole audience visibly jumps.

The cast does far more singing than screaming, though. Fully 80% of the script is sung, rendering Sweeney Todd into more of a Mozartian singspiel than a typical Broadway block-buster. Even the spoken dialogue is underscored with instrumental riffs by the indefatigable Bross Stuart at her keyboard.

The cast rises to the challenge of harmonies that are angular and intricate and a lot darker than, say, The Magic Flute. It's a savour in tune with our own dystopian times. So much so that Sondheim’s macabre score has gone on to spark a whole new genre, the so-called “grusical” (get it? gruesome+musical) including such fare as Phantom of the Opera, Little House of Horrors, Dance of the Vampires and, arguably, even The Heathers.

But Sweeney Todd stands out as the first and, for me at least, the best of the species. And this highly original production promises to become definitive in a whole new way, replicable in pop-up theatres everywhere. Don’t miss its world premiere right here on Water Street, now through Halloween.


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