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    JCC CenterStage Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
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    Artistic Director John Leffert’s vision of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is musical theatre at such a level of chilling dynamism that the sheer vitality of the production pierced the collective hearts of the audience. This bloodcurdling recipe for smashing success leaps alive. The harmony between spot-on casting, inspired macabre hair and makeup, costumes exuding demented flair, and an orchestra at its peak sonic resonance hit all the best notes. This tale of revenge, justice, and love will assuredly hypnotize you long after the final strings pulsate.

    JCC CenterStage Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

    From the moment the orchestra beckons with frenetic chords in the “Prelude” (Music Director John Austin Clark is to be commended), the 24 members of the ensemble cast burst forth onto the industrial/asylum fusion set with “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.” With each consonant accentuated, we are urged to “attend the tale,” transported as instrumental witnesses to the grave events that unfold before us. Thanks to a striking collaboration between J. Michael Spa and Salon’s ingenious makeup and hair (a masterful apparition-rooted impression created by Mikhail Schultz) and Melissa Shepherd’s Costume Design, a visually arresting world is created. Even when the ensemble cast circles with extravagant masks, there exists an inimitable, appalling quality about each character. In Sweeney Todd’s universe, even the people you might recognize as ordinary passersby possess something slightly off about them, suggestive of a nightmarish, Kafka-like atmosphere. Even the props cryptically appear to move like specters across the stage.

    Leffert selected an ace cast, including unrivaled leads Austin Lauer as an acutely tormented Sweeney Todd, and Jennifer Poliskie as a delightfully zany Mrs. Nellie Lovett. Lauer and Poliskie fully embrace the opportunity of these career-defining roles and commit to inhabiting Todd and Lovett, respectively, adding depth and understanding to the thorny psyches of their characters. Theatre is at its most extraordinary when you have the privilege of seeing actors lose themselves in the roles they adopt. Lauer’s rich bass captures Sweeney’s humanity while simultaneously distorting with his demons. Your heart aches for Sweeney just as much as it fears him. Poliskie’s Mrs. Lovett in turn imbues the exact amount of hilarious rationality into outrageous situations, walking a perfect line between ironic sanity and passionate madness.

    JCC CenterStage Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

    Jennifer Poliskie as Mrs. Lovett (left) and Austin Lauer as Sweeney Todd (right)

    Even the middle players in this cast are heavy-hitters as actors. Mitch Donahue’s Anthony Hope can sing the same line, “I’ll steal you, Joanna” twice, but with such a marked difference of juxtaposed emotion that you see his youthful idealism fade before your very eyes. If Leffert intended to choose a Joanna whose voice mirrored that of a gorgeous nightingale’s dulcet tones, Margo Wooldridge’s voice absolutely soars. In a setting where the judicial system presents itself as hideously flawed, Wesley Thomas’ Beadle Bamford knows exactly how to strut in a costume decked out with affluent ostentation, his smirk and stride both elegant and cruel. Andrew Hughes’ Tobias Raggs has one of the greatest challenges of all, needing to demonstrate vulnerability and perilous simplicity with a hint of street-savvy. It takes talent to color childlike audacity with shades of concealed complexity, and Hughes more than succeeds.

    Perhaps the most gripping scene of all occurs when the asylum breaks loose into a feral chant and dance of “City on Fire,” where the unrestrained choreography, insistent, driving harmonies, and sinister set all come together, fierce and seamless. It is the ensemble’s shining moment. The oven threatening on set for the entire tale of the demon barber feels appropriately ominous.

    An almost beautiful aspect of what first could appear as just a vindictive musical story would be the manner in which every minor cast member, every slashing light, every detailed window curtain set against barred walls, each of these seemingly minor details linger and echo with magnitude throughout the show; exactly as Sondheim envisioned his magnum opus. CenterStage’s interpretation of this beloved antihero’s downfall is the best one yet. Move over, Tim Burton. The movie adaptation does not hold a candle to the spine-tingling magic that only live action special effects can conjure.


    CenterStage and J. Michael Spa and Salon present Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street at the Jewish Community Center, playing now through Sunday, November 9th.

    Tickets are $20 in advance and $22 at the door.

    To purchase tickets, call (502) 238-2709 or by clicking here.

    Visit for more information about becoming a season subscriber! CenterStage is celebrating its 100th season of shows, and this season has been especially phenomenal. Rejoice in what makes Louisville great!

    All Photos: Courtesy of CenterStage's facebook page

    Julie Lamb's picture

    About Julie Lamb

    Curly-haired owner of one massive sweet tooth, believer of Harry Potter and Disney fairytales, and a fierce lover of all things literary and the arts.

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