Arts & Culture

Sweeney Todd's Fleet Street Mirrors the Philippines of Today

Atlantis’ 20th anniversary season-ender is unexpectedly relevant.
IMAGE ATLANTIS THEATRICAL
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For a thriller set in Victorian England, Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd—The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is remarkably Filipino. There is, for instance, the antagonist Judge Turpin: A pious authority figure who combines the very worst of both Padres Damaso and Salvi, and somehow makes the hybrid more sickening. There is also Mrs. Lovett, the pie-maker who is forced to creatively cut corners when the economy fails her.

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Jett Pangan and Lea Salonga co-star as Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett respectively.
Photo by ATLANTIS THEATRICAL.

The entirety of Fleet Street itself, filled with people who are forced by poverty into difficult situations, while the rich and powerful wouldn’t even bother to glance their way, could stand in for the Philippines. In an early scene, a bird-seller engages with two of the leads. He tells them about birds in the cages he carries around with him. They are hungry as always, he says, and they are intentionally blinded so that they keep singing. It’s the singing, after all, that helps him sell them.

Cruelty turns these living creatures into commodities, and their exploiter keeps them in cages of his own design so he can profit off their songs. It’s a heavy-handed metaphor, but one that rings regrettably true for the Philippines.

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Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante as Johanna and Gerald Santos as Anthony Hope
Photo by ATLANTIS THEATRICAL.

This is part, perhaps, of why director Bobby Garcia, set designer David Gallo, and costume designer Rajo Laurel went with an anachronistic visual style for Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group’s retelling of the story.

Sweeney Todd is the final production in Atlantis’ landmark 20th anniversary season, and it is jarring the moment audiences walk into the theater. Rather than reconstruct the slums of 17th-century London, the creative team created a stage made from the ruins of building parking lot, with junked cars flanking the set at both sides. The opening number, “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” opens with a man hitting Play on a boombox. Laurel’s costumes are a hodgepodge of fashions from different eras, so consistently disjointed that the resulting aesthetic is one of cohesive madness. By deconstructing its original setting, the team allows the story to be read through the lenses of others.

It’s ambitious, to be sure, and for the most part, pays off; the world of Sweeney Todd is deliriously dark and fantastic, a grim fairy tale set in industrial times. It does, however, tend to demand more from its performers than usual.

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Photo by ATLANTIS THEATRICAL.

Take, for instance, Sweeney Todd’s infamous parlor. Traditional productions tend to outfit his barber’s chair with a gimmick that allows his victim’s corpses to drop out of sight. Todd, a man whose desire for vengeance turns him into a murderous barber, slashes his customer’s throats with a razor. Then, pulling a lever, sends their bodies straight from the chair to the basement. In some stagings, the seat of the chair folds downwards, allowing the victim to slide through the floor via a trapdoor. In others, the chair reclines backwards to nearly 180 degrees, and victims are able to crawl through a hole in the wall.

Gallo’s set situates Todd’s parlor on the back of the only intact car in the whole production, drawing attention to Todd’s position of relative power. This, however, makes it so that the barber’s chair can’t have a gimmick; instead, victims roll off the car and walk towards the basement, bathed in blood-red light the whole way through. Visually, it’s stunning: Not only does the lighting punctuate the act of murder, but the corpses walking to their ultimate fates humanizes them. The play never lets you forget that its protagonist is killing people.

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Jett Pangan as the titular character
Photo by ATLANTIS THEATRICAL.

However, when a performer’s timing is off, the effect quickly switches from macabre to amateurish. In the show this reviewer watched, one actor struggled to roll off the car neatly, unintentionally eliciting laughter from the audience.

And so, for this particular production of Sweeney Todd, every performer needs to be near-flawless. The high-profile cast assembled for this play is, unfortunately, a mixed bag.

Jett Pangan plays the title role, one that is meant to be the dark and brooding sort. There’s something about Pangan’s version of brooding, however, that doesn’t seem to translate well onstage, and it affects all aspects of his performance. Sweeney Todd is a starved tiger glaring at his handler through the bars of his cage, hiding his teeth to lull his next meal into a false sense of security. Pangan’s take on the character, however, appears to have let the cage defeat him.

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He looks bored in moments of dialogue, and though he quite competently hits all the right notes in the musical's complex songs, the performance feels emotionally hollow at times. There is, perhaps, a little too much restraint in his delivery; allowing a tooth to peek out from between his lips every now and then might allow audiences to sympathize with him more strongly. As it is, it’s difficult to feel the vengefulness rising within him in “My Friends,” or to feel any sense of loss in “Final Scene.”

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Photo by ATLANTIS THEATRICAL.

Lea Salonga, as Todd’s partner-in-crime Nellie Lovett, is his polar opposite in nearly every way. Salonga has taken every opportunity to break free of the mould she’s normally cast in, and as a result, this may be the most fun we’ve seen her ever have onstage. She takes every risk she can, from her thick Cockney accent to the minutiae of her movements. It’s one of her most delicious performances yet.

Salonga is, in every single second her character is on stage, deranged and doting; murderous, yet motherly. She’s taken a role of such unbelievable extremes and turned her, remarkably, into the most authentic character of the entire production. The duality of Mrs. Lovett is peppered with so many nuances that all her dissonances feel natural. As she sings “Not While I’m Around” with Toby (Luigi Quesada), you forget that this caring, compassionate woman was singing about baking people into pies in “A Little Priest” just half an hour ago.

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If it were possible for a superstar like Lea Salonga to have a second breakout in her career, this would be it.

Quesada has a breakout of his own as the young Tobias Ragg. The earnestness he brings to the role, the innocence in his singing, and the gangly body work he employs to punctuate Toby’s awkwardness makes it impossible not to care for him. Audiences will feel just as protective of him as Lovett does, and eliciting that level of personal investment from those watching is a mark of real talent. Quesada can—and should—soar to even greater heights from here. He is spectacular from the moment he steps on stage, as he introduces us to his boss, Adolfo Pirelli (King of the Barbers and Barber of Kings) with the amusing “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir.”

Nyoy Volante doesn’t just chew the scenery as the scene-stealing Pirelli (King of the Barbers and Barber of Kings); he devours it with relish. The actor is an absolute joy to watch each time his Pirelli takes the stage, injecting a heavy dose of levity at perfect moments so well that it’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role. His intentionally exaggerated accent work only adds more peaks to the performance by balancing caricature with clarity.

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Nyoy Volante (left) as Adolfo Pirelli
Photo by ATLANTIS THEATRICAL.

In contrast, both Gerald Santos (as Anthony Hope) and Andrew Fernando (as Judge Turpin) have their performances suffer from accents that are, at points, indecipherable. Santos’ uneven portrayal of the love-stricken Hope is emphasized by lines that become difficult to understand, though he is, at least, a wonderful singer. Fernando, on the other hand, is revolting in all the best ways as the monstrous Turpin, but his accent falters to the point of distraction fairly often.

Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante, who plays the object of both their affections, handles the weight of her character beautifully. Johanna is forced into the cages society build for its people: constantly stripped of her agency, and punished for attempting to exercise it. The voice Bradshaw-Volante gives her is almost birdsong; Johanna’s is a spirit begging to be set free. Her rendition of “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” demands to be heard live.

Arman Ferrer, as Turpin’s eager henchman Beadle Bamford, demonstrates to audiences why he doubles as the play’s assistant vocal director with his remarkable vocal range. It’s always a delight to hear him sing, even in the handful of moments where he mildly overdoes it. Despite that angelic voice, Ferrer is a believable bully, and watching him harass the denizens of Fleet Street quickly erases any fondness one might develop for the character.

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Andrew Fernando as Judge Turpin and Arman Ferrer as Beadle Bamford
Photo by ATLANTIS THEATRICAL.

Ima Castro plays the Beggar Woman, and is an absolute delight in her early scenes. She captures the comedy of the character splendidly; she is pitiful, raunchy, and clearly off-kilter. It’s in the later scenes, when the Beggar Woman slowly becomes a more tragic character, that Castro loses momentum. While it may have been easy for her to make audiences laugh, there’s something about her sadness that doesn’t make them weep for her. If she can manage to show vulnerability through the Beggar Woman’s madness in later shows, her performance will be a highlight of the entire production.  

As asylum director Jonas Fogg, Dean Rosen gets significantly less to do than he did in Waitress, but he makes the most of it, with sinister greed dripping from his voice. He does fill a few other ancillary roles, however, with varied accents helping audiences distinguish one from the other with little effort.

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As a whole, the starring cast—along with the ensemble comprised of Steven Conde, Kevin Guiman, Jep Go, Christine Flores, Sarah Facuri, and Emeline Guinid—gives an above-average performance. While Salonga, Quesada, and the Volantes are simply luminous onstage, other featured actors show struggles in eliciting strong responses from the audience. Combined with the complexity of Gallo’s set putting a spotlight on movement mishaps, this production of Sweeney Todd is uneven. There is much to enjoy in the performances, but it would be disingenuous to say that they allow the audience to ignore the lower points, despite how exemplary they really are.

For a show that has nearly as many downs as it does ups—and it must be underscored that Salonga’s Lovett is a tremendous up—it’s the value the material brings to its viewers that ultimately decides whether or not it’s a show worth watching.

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Sweeney Todd is a show worth watching.

Photo by ATLANTIS THEATRICAL.

Its relevance to the Philippine context goes far beyond the Damaso-Salvi comparisons and the exploitation metaphors. Sweeney Todd, the character, bears eerie similarities to certain archetypes in today’s Philippines. A man, fashioning himself as a dark avenger against the abusive elite class, comes to the conclusion that evil can only be defeated with a razor drawn across the neck.

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He becomes admired—even idolized—by a fellow victim of society, who doesn’t question his campaign until his violence hits too close to home. In the end, he becomes every bit the monster he sought to slay; different in circumstance, yet identical in self-serving callousness.

At its core, the play asks us to what extent we’ll take action in pursuit of justice. When the system fails us; when we are starving in desperation while the powerful get fat off of our suffering; when our pain justifies righteous anger; is the murder of those we deem wicked validated?

The answer, the play says, is “No.”

“Sweeney Todd—The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” runs until October 27, 2019, at the Theatre at Solaire. Tickets are available at Ticketworld.

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Marco Sumayao
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