Stuff and Nonsense

Whatever else you can say about the performances at the Heritage Square Music Hall, there's nothing else quite like them in Denver. The current hybrid production Sweeney Todd (no relation to the Stephen Sondheim musical) is part sketch comedy, part old-fashioned melodrama, part musical and part obnoxious silliness. It's also very weird and intermittently funny--especially when the actors deliberately break the "fourth wall" and ad-lib.

The story, an adaptation of a fourteenth-century legend, concerns an English barber with a strange past. Many years earlier, his beautiful young wife had been pursued by an obsessed young officer. Coveting Mrs. Todd as he did, he had poor Sweeney thrown into prison for assault when he tried to defend her. Free of the husband's interference, the officer redoubled his efforts to seduce Mrs. Todd, and she responded by jumping into the Thames with her baby. The scandal sent the young officer packing for India, and when Sweeney was released from prison, he lost his grip. He began slitting the throats of his customers and recycling the bodies through the pastry shop of his conspirator, Mrs. Lovett, whose succulent meat pies sold very well on Fleet Street.

And all this before the curtain goes up. Into this den of iniquity enters street urchin Tobias Ragg, who asks for a job as an apprentice so he can save his poor dying mother. Mrs. Lovett takes a motherly shine to the boy and tries to protect him from Sweeney's dark designs. Meanwhile, Miss Johanna Oakley daily expects the arrival of her fiance, Mark Ingestrie, who has been abroad making a fortune. Mark arrives in London and sends word that as soon as he stops off for a shave, he'll be over to see her.

Johanna and her globetrotting friend Colonel Jeffrey rush to Fleet Street, but Mark is nowhere to be found. Not even Mrs. Lovett can find him, though Sweeney has dumped him down the evacuation chute next to his barber's chair in the customary fashion. The inept Inspector Jarvis arrives to question residents about several missing persons, and Sweeney recognizes Colonel Jeffrey--as the man who tried to seduce his wife! A few song-and-dance routines, a good many freeze-action tableaux, and a lot of goofing off bring the story to a satisfyingly ghoulish conclusion involving the bakery oven.

Artistic director T.J. Mullin adapted the story for his little theater company, wrote the lyrics for the songs, produced and directed the show, and stars as the "fiend of Fleet Street" himself. He's practically a one-man production company. As Sweeney, Mullin is all broad gestures and fiendish laughter. He has a knack for telling cornball jokes, teasing the audience and delivering one-liners with effective professionalism (most of the time). The sudden breaks in the story--to inspect a piece of the set that has come unglued, to comment on a missed cue or a botched line--are part of the fun. They're also what sets this experience apart from other brainless theatrical entertainments: The actors have to think on their feet. On the downside, they sometimes don't think fast enough.

Annie Dwyer has the best accent and the most interesting role as Mrs. Lovett, gourmet cook. Alicia King as Johanna does very well with comic innocence. Rory Pierce as fiance Mark pulls off the Dudley Doright routine with hunkish style, and Dan Engelhardt makes a delightful, boyish Tobias. Alex Crawford rounds out the cast nicely as the bungling Inspector, who is most amusing when he is out of character.

The last part of the evening has been reserved for a musical revue totally unrelated to the first part of the show: a bizarre 1960s pop medley featuring--at first, anyway--hits by Simon and Garfunkel. It's odd how sentimental "Mrs. Robinson" sounds when tossed in a mix with "Homeward Bound" and "59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)." But cornball turns to goofball when the troop starts up with TV sitcom themes from the same period--grandiose versions of the music from Gilligan's Island, The Addams Family and The Brady Bunch. But the highlight of the whole evening is a raucous sendup of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" starring the somewhat beefier Mullin in the role of the gloved one. The middle-aged Mullin does his best to play it straight--and the result is enough to paint a smile on the weariest puss in the place.


Sweeney Todd, through November 10 at the Heritage Square Music Hall, No. 5 Heritage Square, Golden, 279-7800.


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