Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Kokandy Productions
Review by Christine M. Malcom

Also see Christine's recent review of Miss Holmes Returns

Kevin Webb (center) and Cast
Photo by Evan Hanover
Kokandy Productions continues its tenth anniversary season with a production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, one that director/choreographer Derek Van Barham calls "a dark delight for the Halloween season." Whether the idea of the Halloween season already being underway by mid-September draws an eye roll from you or you've already scored your 12-foot skeleton for the front yard, this unnervingly intimate and extraordinarily well done version offers a fresh and compelling take on Sondheim's bloody masterpiece.

The gilt-accented, lavishly appointed lobby of the Chopin Theater is the perfect walk-through experience to set up the G. "Max" Maxin IV set and lighting design. Maxin's in-the-round stage is set just high enough above the floor to work with some of the line-of-sight issues imposed by the basement theater's four support pillars. Atop the square main stage is an octagonal revolve that provides the visual for bodies dropping from Sweeney's chair.

Outside of the main stage area, Maxin fills in every available corner between the banks of audiences as well as between audience and sound board, audience and band, and so forth. Thus oversize mirrors, overflowing trunks, and a haunting white dressmaker's form convey the clutter and chaos of Mrs. Lovett's shop and home. The set rises all the way to the ceiling, as Maxin lashes a series of mismatched lamps with Edison bulbs to the lighting grid, along with assorted empty frames in various shapes, sizes, and materials. The end result is a fully immersive set that makes a challenging space maximally useful.

Rachel M. Sypniewski's costume design, Keith Ryan's wigs, and Sydney Genco's makeup design do an excellent job of visually distinguishing the main characters and transforming the ensemble into a seedy, writhing, unsettling mass that often translates black emotional states into motion. This approach, which also showcases Van Barham's excellent choreography, is key to making this production stand out from others. As much as it revels in the blood and horror, this leans into the desperation and the evil it drives ordinary people to do.

Nick Sula's musical direction relies heavily on the piano, but clarinets, flute, piccolo and cello capture the haunting dissonance of Sondheim's music. Vocally, the entire cast is more than up to the challenges. Sula definitely leans into the more operatic elements of the score. Together with Mike Patrick's eerie sound design, this contributes to the audience's sense of being inextricably drawn closer and closer into the action.

Caitlin Jackson and Kevin Webb are outstanding leads, both vocally and dramatically. Jackson's charisma and easy charm allow her to punch the lines and moments that remind us of the depths of her selfish depravity, all the while daring the audience not to love her anyway. This performance frees Webb to play Todd as a black hole of emotion whose brutal bursts of rage are shocking every time. The two enjoy the hell out of their moment of connection in "A Little Priest," and the audience can't help but do the same.

Patrick O'Keefe is terrific as Tobias. Visually, the character calls to mind Pinocchio or a wooden soldier with twin spots of rouge on his cheeks and a blonde haystack of a wig when he's still serving as Pirelli's hype man. Van Barham's jerky, but jaunty, choreography for Toby conveys the desperation of a boy on the verge of being a young man, which successfully sets up the play's final moments where the demon in Sweeney is transferred into him by way of the trauma he experiences locked in the bake house.

In a play where the putative love story usually feels like filler, Ryan Stajmiger (Anthony Hope) and Chamaya Moody (Johanna) are maximally charming and watchable. Moody's voice, in particular, is transcendent in "Green Finch and Linnet Bird," and she demonstrates her flexibility in their duets with Stajmiger, who matches with her beautifully.

Josiah Haugen cuts a striking figure as Beadle Bamford, one that is more menacing than comic–another choice that distinguishes this production from what's typical. In a similar vein, Christopher Johnson's Judge Turpin is genuinely tortured, rather than simply repulsive. Johnson's voice is also remarkable and contributes to the ambitious, opera-leaning taking on the music.

As Pirelli, Quinn Rigg takes a moment to ramp up, so the character's entrance is not quite as big a moment as it typically is. Once he warms up, though, his take on Todd's rival is memorable.

The ensemble's collaboration vocally, dramatically, and in terms of movement is critical to how tight and well paced the show is. Their skill truly capitalizes on the strength of Van Barham's direction.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street runs through November 6, 2022, at Chopin Theater, 1543 W. Division, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit