Sweeney Todd: Prog Metal Version

I first heard about the Landless Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. last year when one of my wife’s college friends, Terry, was one of the Landless board members. Terry heard I was running Metal Disciple and got a hold of me to see if I wanted to check out and review a show from their production of Richard Campbell’s Frankenstein. Being a big Mary Shelley/Frankenstein fan (if you’ve never read the actual book, I highly recommend it) I was excited by the prospect of prog metal Frankenstein. Alas, the time of year was very busy for me and we couldn’t find a time that worked for me to attend, and the opportunity passed me by.

Recently it came to my attention that the company was planning a new production, and this time it would be Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street; also a prog metal version. I am not terribly familiar with Sweeney Todd; I am not a die-hard fan of musicals, but I saw the Johnny Depp movie version, so I was at least familiar with the story. I was on the fence about whether to attend, but two things swayed me toward the affirmative.

First of all, while I am fairly indifferent to musicals, my wife is quite fond of them. Likewise, she is not particularly a fan of metal music, while I am a metal disciple and defender of the faith. So this would be a rare opportunity for a night out that could satisfy both our interests. The second thing that solidified my determination to attend was the fact that the part of Mrs. Lovett would be played by none other than vocalist extraordinaire Nina Osegueda from the excellent D.C./NoVa band A Sound of Thunder. Done deal; where do I pick up my tickets?

We left directly from work for the show, and so ended up on 7th street in D.C. by 6pm, a full two hours before the show. How to kill some time? Normally when we find ourselves in this area it is to attend a Washington Capitals hockey game at nearby Verizon Center, and the usual ritual on those occasions is to drop in at R.F.D (Regional Food and Drink) to grab a bite to eat and sample from their extensive collection of beer offerings. I love a place that has a full-on dedicated beer menu. Since the Warehouse Theater is only several blocks from R.F.D., the choice was simple.

Despite the pit stop for food and beverage we still managed to find ourselves walking around 7th and New York Avenue a little after 7pm trying to find the entrance to the Warehouse Theater. There isn’t a marquee or anything of that sort, and since we were so early they had not yet put out the sign directing attendees to the correct entrance. We figured it out eventually and by 7:30 were ushered in to take our seats.

We had no idea what to expect and were pleasantly surprised by the small and intimate theater, which, if I had to hazard a guess probably seated around a hundred people. We were warned that the front row and right side were in the “splatter zone.” After attending the GWARBQ festival in Richmond two weeks ago, this not surprisingly brought to mind GWAR and their penchant for soaking front row fans in copious amounts of fake blood. We took seats on the comfy padded bench that lined the back row.

Now, before I begin speaking about the show itself, let me state that I had my doubts about writing up a piece on Sweeney Todd, because I am in no way qualified as a theater critic (who am I kidding, I’m probably not qualified as a music critic either) and so will probably make a hack job of my attempt to describe the experience. With that caveat in mind, feel free to read on.

The prospect of a prog metal version of Sweeney Todd left me wondering whether I would need ear plugs. As a metal greybeard with decades in the pit at metal shows, it has become an unfortunate necessity that I wear ear plugs to preserve what is left of my ravaged hearing. The thought of hearing protection unfortunately only occurred to me on the way to the show, so I hoped it would not be an oversight I would regret. My fear was unfounded, as the instrumental music came across at less-than-concert level volumes, which makes sense given the vocals tell the story and there wouldn’t be much point in burying them under layers of distorted guitar.

While I was glad my hearing would survive unscathed, I initially found myself mildly disappointed that there was more prog than metal in their prog metal. I still wanted to hear screaming overdriven guitars alongside the pounding drums, but as I mentioned already, it really would not make much sense to drown out the vocals that tell the story, so I quickly came to terms with having the music in the back seat. As the show progressed I became accustomed to, and even appreciative of, how the subtle music guided the vocal performances on the stage. So I give props to the band members off-stage who moved the show along.

I thoroughly enjoyed the cast of the show. Naturally I was biased towards Nina Osegueda’s performance as Mrs. Lovett, but not without good reason: Nina was simply amazing. While the rest of the cast was running around preaching the expected doom, gloom and bloody goodness, Nina’s Mrs. Lovett at times also brought a welcome comic relief that frequently brought a smile to my face. Her voice was of course strong and beautiful, but it was rounded out by her knowing looks and masterful British accent. What more can I say but Helena Bonham who?

My next favorite cast member came via the unfortunately all too brief performance of Pirelli by Rob Bradley of Baltimore band Aries (which I just happen to be listening to right now on YouTube.) The ill-fated Pirelli doesn’t last long in the scheme of things, but for his brief time in the spotlight Rob performed him wonderfully. He came on stage and immediately busted out a high piercing scream that had me wondering if King Diamond was in the house. Rob had me right there, and I even saw an appreciative smile cross my wife’s face. His over-the-top portrayal of the flamboyant Pirelli was thoroughly enjoyable and it saddened me to know he would soon end up in that box.

No account of Sweeney Todd would be complete without touching upon the lead Demon Barber himself, played by the Landless Theater Company’s producing artistic director, Andrew Lloyd Baughman. Andrew really looked and sounded the part of an obsessed husband bent on retribution upon those who wronged him and destroyed his family. Johnny Depp brought pretty and brooding to the recent movie version, but Andrew channels a more realistic and believable darkness through the character that I found quite relatable. I could not wait for him to take up his razor and begin his bloody work.

I could continue at length about what I enjoyed about all the various cast members, and they are all to be applauded, but I will limit myself to one more character, that of Tobias Ragg, a.k.a. Toby, played by Greg Bowen. When I think of Toby the street urchin, originally in the employ of Pirelli, I think of a young boy. Greg Bowen, however, is tall and lanky and a wee bit past the youth I pictured in my mind. I have no complaints about his performance, though, as his boyish enthusiasm, descriptive facial expressions and all-around general talent truly brought Toby to life.

As I sit here writing this, there are only a mere three shows left in this run of Sweeney Todd, and alas for all you poor devils, those shows are already sold out. So, unless you already purchased tickets, or are quite good at sneaking into places you don’t belong, you are probably out of luck for catching one of these final performances. Which is a shame, really, for it’s a bloody good time.