‘Sweeney Todd’ now serving customers at Footlite

By John Lyle Belden

The dirty streets of 19th century London have been a rich source of great stories, from the fact-inspired fiction of Charles Dickens to the fiction-inspiring facts of Jack the Ripper. Out of these shadows steps “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” Now, attend the tale at Footlite Musicals.

This murderous denizen of Dickens-era penny-dreadfuls is the subject of a popular 1979 musical by Stephen Sondheim, with book by Hugh Wheeler, based on a 1973 play by Christopher Bond. Perhaps you’ve seen the Tim Burton film, or the occasional stage show over the years. Under the direction of Josh Vander Missen, this Footlite production still manages to thrill.

Daniel Draves masterly uses his average-joe looks as the title character. Todd is just another man getting off a boat, a friendly barber – or with a small shift of expression he casts an air of menace, or even madness. He wields a sort of gravitas as well as those trademark silver blades.

Jennifer Simms is a spot-on pitch-perfect Mrs. Lovett on a par with stage and screen notables who have taken on the infamous pie shop. She needs better meat, though, and Todd needs a disposal method as he slashes his way towards long-overdue revenge – you see where this is going.

Troy Bridges is adorable in manner and voice as Anthony Hope, the sailor whose life Todd saves on their recent voyage (for Todd, who had been sent away under another name, it is his secret return from exile). Hope becomes just that as he seeks to rescue Todd’s daughter, Johanna (Christina Krawec) from the evil Judge Turpin (Ben Elliott).

While Elliott makes Turpin downright creepy, Donald Marter portrays the judge’s assistant, Beadle Bamford, as more of an amoral product of his time. You get the sense that if he were hired instead to bust heads for Mr. Todd, he’d do so with the same joy in a day’s “honest” work.

Parker Taylor excels in (pardon the expression) a meaty role as somehow-innocent youth Tobias Ragg. He’ll talk up a crowd for you, seeing it as more a game than a grift, and returns Lovett’s kindness with total devotion.

Other notable roles include Rick Barber as Todd’s rival, Adolfo Pirelli; a cameo by Dan Flahive as bedlam-keeper Jonas Fogg; and Melody Simms as the ever-present Beggar Woman.

One nice touch to this production is the opening overture is played on Footlite’s 1925 theater pipe organ (the full orchestra plays though the musical).

Set designer Stephen Matters delivers on one of the show’s true “stars,” the modified barber chair which Todd uses to dispatch and dispose of his victims, sitting upon a versatile two-story wooden frame.

Equal parts gothic thriller and dark comedy with a good serving of Sondheim, this “Sweeney Todd” is worth experiencing, or revisiting if you’ve met the man before. Performances run through Oct. 2 at the Hedback Theater, 1847 N. Alabama St., Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at Footlite.org.

Hilarious ‘Gentleman’s Guide’ at Footlite

By John Lyle Belden

As Monty Navarro discovers he is related to the noble D’ysquith family, we become fully aware of two things: first, that him having eight people between himself and the wealth and position of being an Earl means we have the idea behind at least half of the title, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder;” and secondly, that we are in for quite the old English style farce with its skewering of Edwardian-era class structure and manners, as well as other kinds of violence happening to numerous D’ysquiths, all played by the same game actor.

This Broadway hit by Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak, on stage at Footlite Musicals, stars handsome devil Troy Bridges as Monty. He is our narrator (this play is his confession) and exudes enough charm to somehow seem the story’s hero – especially considering how boorish and slimy that Daniel Draves portrays each D’ysquith whom our aspiring gentleman has to dispatch.

As for the “love,” Ellen Vander Missen plays Sibella, with whom Monty is smitten, with an interesting mix of sweet and shallow. A girl can’t marry below her station, after all, but who she loves is her business. However, during his ascent, Monty encounters D’ysquith cousin Phoebe (not directly in the succession line, thank goodness) who is a very good girl, and good to marry. Sydney Norwalk plays this role with the right degree of grace – a bit naive, but never the fool.

Our other notable role is the mysterious Miss Shingle, ably portrayed by Claire Slaven. Other parts (aside from nearly half the cast in Draves’s award-worthy effort) are filled by Heather Hansen, Leigh Query, Kelsey McDaniel, Matthew Blandford, Josh Vander Missen, and Footlite favorite Jerry Beasley.

Director Kayvon Emtiaz conducts this macabre mix of music and mayhem as effectively as Jill Stewart leads the orchestra. Each comic beat hits to hilarious effect, making for a surprisingly upbeat dark comedy complete with jaunty tunes like, “I’ve Decided to Marry You,” and “Why Are All the D’ysquiths Dying?”

Avoid all the death and mayhem of the real world at the entertaining mayhem of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” running through Oct. 3 at 1847 N. Alabama in downtown Indy. Get tickets and info at footlite.org.