“What keeps a man alive?/ He lives on others./He likes to taste them first then eat them whole if he can/Forgets that they’re supposed to be his brothers/That he himself was ever called a man.” — The Threepenny Opera, Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill
“The history of the world, my sweet/Is who gets eaten and who gets to eat.” — Sweeney Todd, Stephen Sondheim, Hugh Wheeler
The Denver Center’s magnificent Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a fascinating amalgam of old and new. The story of the murderous barber who killed his clients and the she-wolf baker who ground up the bodies for meat originated with the Victorian penny dreadful The String of Pearls, and you can see how the spirit of the times inspired it: the delight in blood, ghosts, horror and the supernatural, the idea of London as the locus of ultimate evil. The taboo against cannibalism is ancient, too, as is the mixture of uneasy laughter and revulsion it still inspires. Rumors of butchers who sold human flesh have existed for centuries, and there was a widely publicized 2012 news story from Brazil about a man who, with the help of his wife and mistress, killed young women and baked the remains into pies. In 1973 came the play by Christopher Bond on which Sondheim based his musical; Sweeney Todd opened on Broadway six years later.
There are echoes of Brecht-Weill’s The Threepenny Opera here, as well, though the focus is different. Brecht wrote out of a keen sense of injustice, but he also showed how ruthless poor and desperate people can become. There’s nothing political in Sondheim’s work. It’s about revenge rather than deprivation, and where Brecht’s Macheath is a coldhearted underworld businessman whose dealings mimic those of the respectable financial world, Todd is a tragic, larger-than-life figure in both his suffering and his capacity for evil.
What’s new is that DeVotchKa, a Denver act whose music is usually described as “gypsy punk” and who is perhaps best known for the Grammy-nominated soundtrack to Little Miss Sunshine, has done the orchestration. The songs, lyrics and melodies haven’t changed, but the instrumentation and overall effect have. I haven’t listened closely to the Sweeney Todd score for years, so I couldn’t pinpoint the changes, and I’m also not sure I could identify the sound of gypsy punk. But I can say that the music is electrifying: propulsive, forceful and fiercely alive. It’s also multi-stranded, complex — not necessarily hummable, but always lucid and easy to understand, from the lilting waltz accompanying the gruesome “A Little Priest” (“Awful lot of fat/Only where it sat”) to Todd’s apocalyptic “Epiphany.” Ironically, one of the loveliest songs is sung by the orphan Tobias to Mrs. Lovett and, in turn, by her to him: “Not While I’m Around” (“Nothing’s gonna harm you”). Tobias is sincere, and Mrs. Lovett most emphatically isn’t. Then there’s “Green Finch and Linnet Bird,” sung in a lovely silvery soprano by Samantha Bruce as Johanna. Her voice is matched by Daniel Berryman’s strong tenor as Anthony.
The depth of talent is extraordinary. Robert Petkoff’s powerful, sullen, deep-voiced Sweeney Todd is perfectly matched by Linda Muggleston’s funny, scary Mrs. Lovett; I’ll never forget her mix of glee and fascinated horror when she sees her first corpse. But there are wonderful characters everywhere: a ground-shaking bass rumble from ensemble member Danny Rothman; Kathleen McCall as a fluttery, crazed Beggar Woman; and the expressive flowing tenor of Michael Brian Dunn as prissy Pirelli.
The visual qualities are a match for the performances. We may be in London’s meanest streets, but thanks to brilliant lighting and an ingenious set, the poverty sometimes feels as stylized and picturesque as a Dickensian Christmas card. Well, except for those evil, washed-out faces and raggedy clothes we notice in moments of pure horror. And, oh, the costumes. I’m guessing designer Kevin Copenhaver was told to go to town in terms of cost and imagination, because I could have spent half the evening happily contemplating Johanna’s dress: the shape, the layered skirt with its myriad subtle shades, the way it moves with her — not to mention those pretty, pointed turquoise shoes. So should you tire of the singing, music and action — and I can’t imagine why you would — you’ll find something new on which to focus your thoughts and feast your eyes on every corner of the stage.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, presented by the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company through May 15, Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, denvercenter.org.