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Pies on Fleet Street

At the end of June Dr. S and I took our wives to see Sweeney Todd at Signature Theatre, in celebration of Dr. S's birthday. None of us knew what to expect; we hadn't heard of Signature Theatre before, and not all of us had seen the musical previously. And we didn't do our homework, instead going along for the ride at what we assumed must be a community theatre, and set our expectations appropriately.


I've since learned that "With a small startup budget, 126 subscribers, and a space in Arlington’s Gunston Middle School auditorium, Signature’s first musical in 1991, a gutsy production of Sweeney Todd, was a stand-out hit, putting Signature on the map, earning four Helen Hayes Awards and solidifying Signature’s reputation as an intrepid producer of Stephen Sondheim’s work" (sigtheatre.org), which explains why the production was such a wonderful success.



While I wouldn't call the 2023 run "gutsy," Signature's Sweeney was quite good, featuring a live orchestra and phenomenal voice talent across the entire cast. Nathaniel Stampley and Bryohna Marie shone as Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett, although I admittedly disliked Marie's exaggerated cockney (my companions disagreed with my assessment). Their chemistry and vocal talent made for an exceptional experience, and they were supported by a truly talented ensemble cast (Christopher Michael Richardson's Beadle Bamford was my wife's favorite). Performed in the round, our side-front seats increased the sense of spectacle in a way I thoroughly enjoyed.


But it wasn't a perfect production, and I wouldn't be me if I didn't offer my quibbles. First, Harrison Smith as Tobias: Smith put on a truly wonderful performance as Toby, but the choice to cast a large adult in the role detracted from the character, and gave the story a sense of absurdity that detracted rather than supported. Had they made a few changes in dialogue I think they could have played it off well, but preserving the narrative of the "boy" in reference to Smith as an adult did not work.

Neither did the frivolous use of meathooks for the set. The theatre offered an austere canvas for the play, with some moveable doorways to chance spaces, all of which worked well (although they should have used a trap door! They certainly seemed to have the space). But using hooks to hang bird cages and then cumbersome body bags added nothing to the production, and instead made the set appear more the work of an enthusiastic amateur rather than an experienced designer. (The same might be said for the awful mutton chops they put on Paul Scanlan, who played Anthony. Poor thing.)



But my biggest, and arguably most important quibble, is with the marketing.



Why, when you have a charismatic Nathaniel Stampley cast in the titular role, would you promote the play with a white man on the poster?

Poorly done, Signature.

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