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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, April 15, 2024

‘Sweeney Todd’ is a killer first production for Arrow Street Arts

The classic musical gets an uplift in a new theater venue.

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Davron S. Monroe and Joy Clark are pictured in Moonbox Production's "Sweeney Todd."

Greater Boston recently welcomed a new performance space to its theatre scene: Arrow Street Arts in Cambridge, on the outskirts of Harvard Square. The venue was previously home to Oberon, a popular stage for fringe and experimental performances, owned by the American Repertory Theater. Since Oberon closed its doors in the winter of 2021, 2 Arrow St. has been vacant — that is, until Cambridge theatre company Moonbox Productions took up residence in the theatre this year. Their first production was an ambitious reimagining of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (1979) directed by Ryan Mardesich.

The production, which ran from Oct. 13 through Nov. 5, is set in 1840s London and tells the tale of Sweeney Todd (Davron S. Monroe), an ill-tempered English barber who returns home after 15 years banished on false charges to get revenge on those who wronged him. Todd takes up residence with Mrs. Lovett (Joy Clark), the eccentric owner of a local meat pie shop. As Todd reopens his barbershop, he hatches a plan to exact his revenge by murdering his customers, who are turned into pies by Lovett. While this plotline is certainly familiar to fans of the show, the Moonbox production puts its own unique twist on the decades-old story.

As with any production of “Sweeney Todd,” success rests on the talent and chemistry of the two lead actors, and Moonbox certainly delivers in this regard. Monroe brings a quietly menacing energy to his Todd, burdened by the weight of injustice. As a singer, Monroe’s incredible range and expressive sound bring gravitas to the role, but he’s not afraid to lighten up around Clark, who acts as his comedic foil. Clark plays Mrs. Lovett with just the right amount of crazed affection for Todd, and her comic timing keeps the show from feeling tedious. Many of the show’s best moments feature the two lead actors, including the Act One finale (which effortlessly transitions from Todd’s dramatic “Epiphany” to the pair’s “A Little Priest”), Lovett’s delightful “By the Sea” and the heartbreaking final scene of the show.

The entire ensemble works as a unit, thanks in part to clever choreography (by Joy Clark, truly this production’s MVP) that makes use of the entire space. Several supporting cast members stand out, including Ethan DePuy as the rival barber Adolfo Pirelli and Meagan Lewis-Michelson as the pompous Beadle Bamford. Additionally, Dallas Austin Jimmar leans into the comedy of youthful sailor Anthony Hope and Eli Douglas delivers an outstanding performance as the young Tobias Ragg, who starts off joyous and naive but is eventually forced to face the dark truth behind Todd and Lovett’s operation. Douglas and Clark make the most of “Not While I’m Around,” a touching duet that interrupts the chaos of Act Two.

The eight-piece pit orchestra, directed by Dan Ryan, is a highlight of the production. Visible throughout the show on the stage’s rear, the musicians’ sound rivals that of a much larger Broadway orchestra, and the lush orchestrations are a joy to take in. Mardesich’s direction is dynamic and interesting, although he makes some odd blocking choices at times. Kat Zhou’s lighting design also elevates the production, with lighting choices that highlight the story’s emotional weight.

Set designer Cameron McEachern’s attention to detail is astounding. The set reflects a typical barbershop, with tiled floors and barber poles, while the inclusion of gutters scattered about the floor gives the stage an eerie feeling. The door to Lovett’s oven looms over the stage, only accessible by walking across a small bridge over the orchestra. While Todd’s iconic barber chair may be more technically simple in this production, Mardesich’s direction turns the fairly unassuming set piece into something more interesting: Instead of being sent through a trapdoor, each victim rises from the chair after being killed, walking themselves into the blazing oven and to their final deaths.

From start to finish, the production manages to keep audiences engaged. The opening number, “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” clearly sets the tone for the rest of the show, as the ensemble introduces the show with a haunting presence before summoning Todd to the stage. When Todd first crawls his way out of a gutter in the stage’s floor, the audience is given a chilling introduction to his character.

As the story progresses and Todd’s desire for revenge grows, his descent into madness becomes more apparent. Monroe brings this madness to life, as his body contorts itself and his movements become sharp and predatorial. Todd and Lovett’s hunt for Tobias is unsettling in the best way as they rush about the stage, calling out for the young boy. Todd’s rash behavior only comes to a halt after he realizes the true cost of his actions, meeting his ultimate fate in the final moments of the show. In the production’s closing number, the full cast rushes forward, reminiscing on the frightening tale of Sweeney Todd and the tragic destruction of revenge. A promising first production for the newly reopened space, “Sweeney Todd” brings something new to the classic Sondheim musical and bodes well for the future of Arrow Street Arts.

Summary Moonbox Productions makes “Sweeney Todd” their own with an outstanding first performance in their new venue.
4 Stars