Event Review: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street by Paper Moon Theatre

On Friday night, I had the opportunity to see the long-anticipated musical performance of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, presented by Paper Moon Theatre and directed by the experienced and talented Jason Sedlar. To those familiar with the Ottawa theatre scene, Paper Moon Theatre might sound like a new company, but it is in fact an amalgamation of two existing theatre groups. Having been impressed by the work of one of the groups previously, I was excited to see what this union would create! I was not disappointed! Sweeney Todd is a professional production, through and through. It featured a star-studded cast of Ottawa talent, and every element of the show had a “spare-no-expense” feel: from the unbelievable set to the lighting and the costumes/makeup.

Photo: Derek Hille (Ensemble)

The venue for Sweeney Todd is the Algonquin Commons Theatre, which is situated near the back of the college. I am very familiar with this venue, but the shows that I have seen there have primarily been concerts and comedy shows; this was my first time seeing a theatrical performance there. For those of you who haven’t been to Algonquin Commons Theatre before, here’s what you can expect: there is plenty of parking behind the theatre for only $6. If you’re looking to avoid paying, you can try your luck at the College Square plaza next door, but rumour has it, security will watch for people to park there and walk to the college. If you grab dinner first at one of the restaurants there, you could probably get away with it (I really like Chances ‘R’!)

Once inside the school, the Commons is the first thing you’ll see. There is a lobby/bar area set up during the show’s run, with comfortable seating for 20-30 people, and standing room for another 100 or so (in the licensed area). Drinks at the bar are very reasonably-priced. The have a selection of craft beer from Ace Hill Brewery, Muskoka and Beau’s. Tall cans are $8 each. Pre-mixed drinks and ciders are available from Cottage Springs and Brickworks respectively, and the alcoholic drink menu is rounded out by a small selection of wines from Jackson Triggs.

Inside the theatre, seating is in three sections. The floor seating is divided into two areas on either side of the central orchestra for the show. The main level consists of seats elevated in traditional theatre style by rows, and the balcony is above the main seating area, overlooking the stage. The theatre is beautiful, featuring state of the art equipment, friendly staff, and very comfortable seating with plenty of space. The only thing that I would maybe change about the venue is the temperature, as many patrons seemed to find it to be quite chilly inside the theatre!

Now, onto the show!

In general, the show was fantastic! My first impression when the curtains opened was that this show was going to raise the bar in the Ottawa theatre community! The set was impressive to say the least. It really set the dark tone for the show, and as the performance continued, its functionality proved to be equally impressive. It rivaled anything I have seen before, including Broadway productions!

Photo: Derek Hille (Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford – Set)

The show, while accurately described as a thriller, offers comedic aspects as well. My favourite song was the hilarious, “Worst Pies in London” sung by Mrs. Lovett, portrayed by the exceptional Skye MacDiarmid. This number was so light-hearted, allowing the audience a brief reprieve from the darkness, easing them into the horror that was to come.

Standout Performances:

As mentioned, this cast is as professional as they come, and I was blown away by many performances during the show. Many of the cast were not new to me either: I believe there are three individuals who can been found in the “Standout Performances” section of previous reviews. This truly is an all-star cast, so selecting only a few who stood out was rather challenging.

Skye MacDiarmid as Mrs. Lovett

Skye MacDiarmid was incredible in her portrayal of Mrs. Lovett. She is remarkably talented! The character toes the line between heroine and villain, largely because MacDiarmid’s approach to the character was so unique, different than one might expect of Mrs. Lovett. I was hugely impressed at the dimension that MacDiarmid brought to this character. She was SO believable (and dare I say ‘lovable?’) in this role, it’s amazing. Although her vocals were flawless throughout the performance, I especially loved her rendition of “By the Sea.” Her ability to draw the audience in so well, to have them truly relate to and sympathize with her, is something that I don’t often see in theatre. This speaks to her strong acting abilities. While reading her bio in the program, I was not surprised at all to see such an extensive performance background; in fact, the only shocking part was that she is not currently on Broadway. Just WOW.

Photo: Derek Hille (Mrs. Lovett)

Emili Losier – Ensemble

For standout performances, I often mention members of the cast who may not have a lead role, but whose talent significantly improves the quality of the show and the overall experience of seeing it. These performers stand out to me over others. My first selection here is Emili Losier. This is the first time that I’ve seen her perform in a theatrical production, but as one of Ottawa’s most talented opera singers, I’ve heard her beautiful voice at multiple concerts. There are many numbers in the show where her voice can be heard well above the rest of the cast, however it isn’t overpowering. It truly seems to be her vocal ability; her voice fills the theatre, and it is enough to give a person chills. Her stage presence also lends to her standing out, she really put on a great show. My only complaint would be that she was very much underutilized; I’m surprised that she didn’t have a bigger role. I suspect I’ll see her in future theatrical productions, but in lead roles.

Dennis van Staalduinen – Ensemble

Dennis van Staalduinen, also in the ensemble, really brought his character to life. I’ve seen him recently in Something Rotten by Orpheus, and although I didn’t have him listed as a standout performer, I certainly remember him! He really stood out to me in Sweeney Todd, as each and every scene that he was in, he was very engaging, lively and energetic! He really seemed to embody his character, demonstrating how strong a performer he is! His bio in the program listed him as being the recipient of a best actor award, which was unsurprising, given his long list of previous shows and his obvious natural talent!

Photo: Derek Hille (Asylum scene with Dennis Van Staalduinen)

Peter Graves – Sweeney Todd

Lastly, I have to acknowledge the phenomenon that is Peter Graves, who portrayed title character Sweeney Todd. Before I even knew who his character was, I was extremely impressed with Graves’ vocals in the first scene of the show: that range is pretty rare, from the shows that I have seen! After learning that he was Sweeney Todd, I was excited to see what he was capable of throughout the rest of the show. Graves did not disappoint: his stunning vocals aside, his acting skills made him the perfect choice for this complex character. Any actor who portrays Sweeney Todd must demonstrate a wide array of emotions, including happiness, rage, anger, despair, love and excitement, all while maintaining what could be best described as a maniacal undertone. Graves was amazing! The pressure that comes with portraying a title character would surely be immense, but Graves rose to the challenge, exceeding all expectations for semi-professional theatre. I look forward to seeing Graves in the future!

Photo: Derek Hille (Sweeney Todd)

In addition to these four individuals, I loved the performance of Adrien Pyke, who was the ‘Bird Seller’ and a member of the ensemble. His stage presence is always fantastic, and this show was no exception. I’ve mentioned Pyke’s talent previously in his portrayal of ‘Crutchie’ in Newsies, and ‘Rod’ in Avenue Q.

Finally, a special shoutout to all the other individuals whose talents were essential in making a production of this caliber a success. Jason Sedlar, Director: kudos on successfully bringing such an ambitious show to the stage! Standing ovation to Sabrina Tang for her musical direction. Sondheim is no easy feat, but the music throughout the performance was outstanding! It was great to see the orchestra set up front and center, and with a variety of less-common instruments too! Sharon Dickson nailed it with the choreography for this show. Arya Landers broke the mould when it came to marketing, promoting this show show in new, creative and exciting ways. While I was asked not to name the artist specifically, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the fantastic makeup design and application! Both were a creative departure from traditional Sweeney Todd looks, and this seemed to allow for the actors to develop the characters in their own way, which is a large part of what made the show so great. The costumes were incredible, and perfect for the era, so kudos to Gailene Green for taking on what must have been a daunting task, and putting those looks together so well! Anna Seguin did a great job sourcing the perfect props to bring this show to life, and last, but certainly not least, set designer Brodie Spaull absolutely nailed it with one of the best sets I’ve ever seen! The little extra (no spoiler!) element of the set was so unexpected, and the audience LOVED it!! I want a backstage tour to see how it works! Very well done!

Sweeney Todd begins its second week of shows on Wednesday, October 11th, with daily performances at 7:00pm, as well as weekend matinees at 1:00pm until Sunday, October 15th. There are still tickets available for most shows, but buy them quickly. When word gets out about how great this show is, they’re expected to sell out! Tickets are available through the Algonquin Commons Box office and Ticketmaster.

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