Mariam Bernstein and Peter Huck in Sweeney Todd (Gary Barringer)
Until tonight, I'd successfully avoided ever seeing any version of Sweeney Todd. I love musicals, and wish that every show began with an orchestral overture. But a vengeful barber who slits his customer's throats, while his enterprising neighbour bakes the victims into tasty meat pies? Sounds gory and boring, like a Twilight-tinged monster flick. I don't like horror movies, partially because of the gore, but mostly because it's too simple when the 'monster' is so obviously, unchangingly, monstrous (cue the hockey - or opera - mask).
But something more complicated happens in this production. These 'monsters' genuinely engaged me, not through fear or even pity, but because of their warmth and familiarity; the difference between the good guys and the bad guys is not always clear. Steven Ratzlaff, as Judge Turpin, delivers a magnificent portrayal of a tender, besotted lover - who is also a sexual predator. Mrs. Lovett (Mariam Bernstein) is big-hearted and practical; she's your favourite neighbour at the block party (serving up human flesh instead of macaroni salad). And even the razor-wielding barber takes as much joy in the delivery of a good pun as he does in slitting throats; Peter Huck moves this character through rage, grief, and real kindness in ways that give dimension and depth to the eponymous role. While you don't exactly cheer for him, you can't quite bring yourself to entirely condemn him, either.
The second half goes way over the top; the bodies begin to (literally) pile up, and like all good tragedies, the plot hurtles frantically toward inevitable catastrophe. The pacing is taut, and the warmth and humanity of the characters disintegrates into cruelty, confusion, and even melodrama. But by then I'd already been sucked in, and I wasn't leaving the theatre until I knew exactly how it all ended. (Besides which, Cate Wood's gorgeous voice gave me chills).
I still don't like horror movies. But I'm happily surprised to have found this production engaging and funny, musically rich, and peopled by contradictory, complicated, and compelling characters. Maybe all truly good horror narratives are all of those things, and it took this particular team effort by Dry Cold Productions for me to notice it; maybe all I needed was a horror story I can hum along with.
Chandra Mayor writes, reads, and watches musicals in Winnipeg.