THEATER REVIEW : East West’s ‘Sweeney Todd’ Realizes Possibilities


Attend the tale of East West Players--the 99-seat theater that took on “Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” Stephen Sondheim’s masterwork. It’s the musical with a plot that grips like a steel trap and a thrilling, operatic score that embraces broad comedy, penny-dreadful gore and the height of human rage. Plus, it has a killer act-one finale, one of the best in the entire canon of American musicals.

Set in the grime and misery of late-19th-Century lower-class London, “Sweeney” tells the story of a much-wronged barber and Mrs. Lovett, the friendly neighbor who helpfully gives him the idea to butcher his customers and at the same time turn her sorry meat-pie shop into a thriving enterprise. The majority of the East West Players are Asian American, which necessitates a few cuts in the text and a change in a line about yellow hair to the oxymoronic “raven hair, like wheat.” Other than that, it will never enter anyone’s mind that East West isn’t the little company that could.

Tim Dang’s direction is both deeply conversant with Hal Prince’s seminal 1979 staging for the huge Uris Theatre and also attuned to the possibilities of telling an intimate story, as Sondheim initially imagined it (the composer-lyricist adapted the story with book writer Hugh Wheeler from British playwright Christopher Bond, who took his cue from an 1847 Grand Guignol tale). The minimal choreography, though, is too corny for the piece.

On Chris Tashima’s three-tiered, dark wood set, which is both simple and wonderfully complex, the actors move chunks of scaffolding, transforming the scene from a dock to a storefront to a parlor to a madhouse and more. They then sit down amid the scene they’ve created, representing the ever-present unemployed in a place where, as Mrs. Lovett says, “times is hard.”



Barely obscured by a curtain, four musicians (three on keyboard, one percussion) handle the magnificent music with love and energy. As an ensemble, the cast sings well, although individual performances cobble the score somewhat. Orville Mendoza sings Sweeney better than he acts it, but his powerful build and silent seething are effective, particularly when he strikes a tableau, holding his razor out, like a Greek statue representing the archetypal attitude of revenge. As Mrs. Lovett, Freda Foh Shen acts better than she sings, and her unceasing cheerfulness in the face of (or possibly because of) all the gore is just right. In the secondary parts, there are two outstanding performances: Radmar Agana Jao’s touching, funny Tobias, the young urchin whom Mrs. Lovett takes under her wing (so to speak), and Linda Igarashi’s Johanna, a boilerplate ingenue that she makes fresh and vital. This is especially impressive because Paul Wong, as her lover Anthony, is hopeless. Deborah Nishimura is a terrific beggar woman.

Uneven cast notwithstanding, East West makes “Sweeney” come to life. Although it is a world so cruel that even songbirds are blinded because “not knowing day from night, they sing without stopping,” it is a world infinitely worth knowing. This “Sweeney” sings with all its heart.

* “Sweeney Todd,” East West Players, 4424 Santa Monica Blvd., Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday matinees, 2 p.m. Ends Oct. 30. $20-$25. (213) 660-0366. Running time: 3 hours.

Paul Wong Anthony Hope

Orville Mendoza Sweeney Todd

Deborah Nishimura Beggar Woman

Freda Foh Shen Mrs. Lovett

Daniel Kim Judge Turpin

Alvin Ing Beadle Bamford

Linda Igarashi Johanna

Radmar Agana Jao Tobias Ragg

Kevin Loreque Pirelli

Ed You Jonas Fogg

Sean Blodgett, Cindy Cheung, Jennifer Fuji, Sabrina Lu, Tedd Szeto Ensemble

David Cheung, Winnie Cheung, Lisa Joe, Scott NagataniMusicians

An East West Players production. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Hugh Wheeler. Directed by Tim Dang. Musical director Scott Nagatani. Sets Chris Tashima. Lights G. Shizuko Herrera. Costumes Naomi Yoshida Rodriguez. Sound Scott Nagatani and Miles Ono. Hair and makeup Christian Souza. Stage managers Hitomi Nakatani and Natalie Topel. Technical consultant Irma Escamilla.