Murder Most Tasty at A Noise Within

Sweeney Todd’s “Worst Pies in London” may be Pasadena’s Hottest Ticket

6 mins read
A store inside of a building
Appropriately distressed costumes from Sweeney Todd at A Noise Within. Photo: Victoria Thomas

On a recent frigid evening, we dropped in for the first dress rehearsal of the new production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at A Noise Within, which was previewed on February 11 and runs through March 17.

The theater seems so large when it’s nearly empty, and the dim interior is chilly enough to raise a shudder. A few seated figures dressed in rags emit feral howls and vocalize nonsense babble, a soundtrack of bedlam we’re happy to recognize as standard thespian warm-up exercises. Knowing this Wheeler/Sondheim work, the shudders and howls have just begun.

A few moments of the Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street dress rehearsal at Pasadena’s A Noise Within. Video: Andrew Thomas

A cellist and pianist explore a few passages while the actors are backstage in costume and makeup. Director and choreographer Julia Rodriguez-Elliott pads around the darkened house as the stage comes to life.

Knowing this Wheeler/Sondheim work, the shudders and howls have just begun.

“I view this as a cautionary tale,” she says, “about what happens when things go unchecked. Starting with the literal perspective, this is about eat-or-be-eaten morality. That’s the jumping-off point for this story, which is about unearthing the truth of this man who is wronged by society and returns to serve a dark and vengeful god, as the Sondheim lyric goes.”

Revenge is Bloody Sweet

What has gone unchecked in this gleefully grisly musical is the protagonist’s unresolvable trauma. Before he assumes the persona of Sweeney, the once- “beautiful” lead character is victimized by a corrupt judge in Victorian London. The official lusts for the man’s wife, Lucy, and arranges to have the man sent to a penal colony in Australia without just cause, much less a trial, so that he may have access to Lucy and her child, Johanna. The judge rapes Lucy, who attempts to take her own life. The judge barricades young Johanna in a tower like a doomed fairy tale princess and then falls in love with her as well. This poisonous pie of lust, possible pedophilia, the cruel abuse of social power and the delicious madness of revenge is served up steaming-hot from the opening notes of the prelude, where the company sings:

“Swing your razor wide, Sweeney
Hold it to the skies
Freely flows the blood of those
Who moralize.”

Victorian society, much like our own, professed humanitarian piety but often displayed its opposite. Sharp, invisible demarcations of class and caste stratified the population, and poverty, addiction (gin, in the slums of Victorian London), homelessness and apparent mental illness confronted the upper crust – pardon the pie-pun—daily.

Julia’s Vision

Backstage, Costume Designer Angela Balogh Calin smiles, “Welcome to the chaos!” while sewing machines hum and costumer Maria Uribe and volunteer Marianne Wallace make last-minute alterations.

“Julia’s vision is a play inside a play,” she says. “Our story is set in an abandoned theater, where unhoused people are taking shelter. They discover objects and old costumes, and everything takes on this kind of dream-like, fuzzy feeling.” Maybe it’s more of a nightmare and definitely not warm and fuzzy.

Angela attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Bucharest and is a member of the Costume Designers Guild in the USA and Romania.

“The costume creates the character,” she says, examining a length of tattered lace, still lovely.

The Close Shave and the Daily Grind

The Industrial Revolution is an unnamed character in this play, a powerful influence that changed the British landscape as well as the global psyche. Tall buildings blocked the sun, new factories belched coal smoke in the first wave of major fossil fuel use that would threaten the planet’s ecosystems a mere century later, and the unprivileged labored in grim workhouses to feed the insatiable machine. One reading of Sweeney Todd is the devouring nature of modern times and that all of humanity meets the mince-meat fate of the demon barber’s unwitting customers.

Grittiness and desperation guide the production’s design sense, including the costume concept, which Angela describes as coming from “…grunge, dirt, smokiness, darkness.” Many of the garments on the rolling racks backstage gleam with the memory and luster of better times, cast-off finery, distressed silks and brocades that unravel before our eyes.

The look and feel bring to mind a children’s rhyme that dates back to Elizabethan times:

“Hark, hark, the dogs do bark,
The beggars are coming to town!
Some in rags, some in tags,
And one in a velvet gown.”

Wig/Makeup Designer Tony Valdes explains that creating the cosmetic effects for this cast “is the complete opposite of what I usually am asked to do. These are characters who are not sleeping well. They don’t bathe, and their skin is not good. I want to show dirt under the fingernails and dental decay without going too far and making it into a cartoon.”

Valdes was born in Cuba and then attended the University of Puerto Rico, where he earned a BA in Fine Arts and Theater.

“I style her in the kind of wig you find in a dumpster on Hollywood Boulevard.”

Tony Valdes

“I’ve been an actor, so I know what I bring from my own life to create a story with the hair and makeup,” he says. He uses dry shampoo, along with other texturizers and powders, to create the rough texture of seriously unwashed hair and create an authentic sense of being untethered and unhinged.

“And no false lashes,” he says, “Even the character of Mrs. Lovett, who’s a former actress in the story. She’s delusional and tries to emulate her former glamour. So, I style her in the kind of wig you find in a dumpster on Hollywood Boulevard.”

Montreal-born Scenic Designer Francois-Pierre Couture, a UCLA alumnus, explains, “We’re going for something more sparse in terms of set design. Usually, Sweeney is made with different floors, chutes, and, of course, the mechanical chair. But here, we find ourselves in this very run-down, tattered shell of an old theater, filled with strange objects that the actors transform into a kind of symbolic life. And we’re not splashing the gore all over the place. We’re forcing the audience to take a little bit of a leap. We have this hero who was abused in the past. When he takes revenge, we confront this primordial feeling. Do we root for him? Do we condemn him? Would I act this way?”

Foul Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart

The fuming steampunk engine of Sweeney Todd is the contrast between the period’s crisp mores and the reality of London life. In polite circles, we are told, even the limbs—don’t call them legs—of pianos were draped in ruffles to avert any impure thoughts. Yet the alleys of the city were ripe and rife with sin and violence. Bull baiting and bear baiting may have been banned around 1835, but there was still plenty of bloodsport entertainment available to help release the pressures of urban life.

Toward the end of Queen Victoria’s reign only a little more than 200 miles across the English Channel, a notorious French theatrical trend titillated audiences to extremes that even surpassed “A String of Pearls,” the anonymous penny-dreadful which allegedly recounted the crimes of a real-life murderer and cannibal who has found his way into the modern characterization of Sweeney Todd.

In 1897, Oscar Méténier opened the smallest theater in Paris, a mere 293 seats. In a former chapel, carved angels soared above the audience. He named it Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, and it became notorious as a venue for graphic portrayals of violence and sex among the Apache dancers, prostitutes, urchins, and various colorfully unsavory characters of the Pigalle district. The success of the production was judged on how many patrons vomited, fainted, or, during the more erotic scenarios, retreated in pairs or a trois, to the privacy of rental chambers beneath the balcony. As a marketing ploy, director Max Maurey hired doctors and actors dressed as doctors to attend the performances.

Whether enjoying a pint, a wager and a dogfight or watching simulated rape onstage, these scenes from the recent past attest to the human thirst for terror and horror. Psychologists might opine that the appeal is an opportunity for vicarious naughtiness and, thus, catharsis. Today, those of us who can still bear to watch the nightly news sigh about the serial killers, mental illness, mass shootings, PTSD among veterans, suicides, ODs, and the sprawl of tent cities in Los Angeles and seemingly everywhere. While Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street offers no solution, the play is indeed a command to heed the damage done by our lesser angels, unhealed aspects of ourselves.

“Hugging the blade, waiting the years,
Hearing the music that nobody hears.”

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street runs through March 17.
Tickets and Location: A Noise Within
Tickets start at $29, student tickets at $18

Pay What You Choose tickets: purchase online, or after 2 PM at the box office the day of the performance. February 15, February 16. Suggested price: $10

Opening night, February 17, 8 PM. Free post-show cast party following the opening night performance. Join the actors for post-show conversations:
• February 23, 8 PM
• February 25, 2 PM
• March 1, 8 PM
• March 8, 8 PM
• March 15, 8 PM

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Victoria Thomas

Victoria has been a journalist since her college years when she wrote for Rolling Stone and CREEM. Victoria describes the view of Mt. Wilson from her front step as “staggering,” and she is a defender of peacocks everywhere.
Email: [email protected]

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