The Column Online



Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler

Circle Theatre

Director & Choreographer - Joel Ferrell
Stage Manager - Renee Dessommes
Music Director - Ian Ferguson
Lighting Designer - Amanda West
Set Designer - Bob Lavallee
Sound & Prop Designer - Matthew Gray
Costume Designer - Melissa Panzarello
Musical Associate & Pianist - Aimee Hurst Bozarth

Anthony Hope - Ian Ferguson
Mrs. Lovett - Sarah Gay
Adolfo Pirelli/Beggar Woman - Mary Gilbreath Grim
Sweeney Todd - Max Hartman
The Beadle/Jonas Fogg - Alex Heika
Judge Turpin - Randy Pearlman
Tobias Ragg - Alejandro Saucedo
Johanna - Carly Wheeler

Reviewed Performance: 6/7/2019

Reviewed by Rebecca Roberts, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

Immediately upon walking into Circle Theatre’s intimate performance space is a feast of aesthetics. The set decoration, the murky lighting, and even the echoing soundscape primes the audience members by creating an overwhelming atmosphere of eeriness for this unique production of Stephen Sondheim’s SWEENEY TODD. Inspired by the 2004 revival directed by John Doyle, aside from a single onstage pianist, the music in this production was predominately played by the eight actors themselves – a bold choice that paid off beautifully. This production was, in a word, exquisite.

We all know the plot of SWEENEY TODD by now, don’t we? A skilled barber returns to London with a lust for vengeance after being falsely imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. It’s a classic boy meets girl who owns a pie shop, girl encourages boy to use his razors to exact revenge on his enemies, and boy and girl come up with an efficient business model that just happens to include killing men and baking them into pies. A classic, endearing, plot structure we see all the time; but definitely not one for the weak of heart (or stomach). The dark themes of violence, mental instability, and violence ring loudly throughout the story, and director Joel Ferrell makes sure audiences leave the show contemplating the kind of mark that such themes can create.

At the helm of this show was Joel Ferrell, who both directed and choreographed this seamless production. His ability to build scenes and transitions that included actors managing onstage practical lighting, handling/playing musical instruments, repositioning set pieces, and just acting…was flawless. Movement was never wasted, and every cross and counter had a clear purpose. And yet, you sometimes didn’t even see the movement because it blended in so effortlessly with the onstage action. Ferrell clearly worked intimately with his incredible production team because all design elements worked so beautifully together, with no piece ever feeling out of place or ill-conceived. Ferrell’s vision for a seemingly fantastical industrial revolution apocalypse design theme was clear and consistent, and exquisitely achieved.

Music director Ian Ferguson arranged the music with perfect precision and invention, acting as a kind of musical Foley artist. His substitutions for classic instruments typically used in the production were innovative, taking the lead from the production’s overarching theme of using found objects – vocalizations instead of strings, a metal folding chair instead of cymbals, etc. And Ferguson directed the music in such a way that it never felt as though the eight voices onstage weren’t enough to tackle the hauntingly verbose vocals typically sung by a much larger ensemble. And if you don’t think a banjo belongs in SWEENEY TODD, let Ferguson’s performance change your mind.

Max Hartman played the titular role of Sweeney Todd, with an interpretation of the character I had never before experienced (but am now obsessed with). Hartman unearthed the deeper psychological elements of the character, leaning more heavily on Todd’s clearly psychopathic tendencies. His abrupt shifts from superficial charm to violence were incredibly more effective and realistic than the eternally dark and brooding characteristics typically embraced by actors playing Todd. Hartman’s singing was also unique in its style and tone – perfectly combining gruff/gravelly and emotional/powerful. Truly, his performance of Sweeney Todd was original and captivating.

Where Hartman explored the untapped potentials of Sweeney Todd, Sarah Gay performed an extremely classic (but still incredibly enjoyable) Mrs. Lovett. Her larger-than-life facial expressions, exaggerated cockney accent, and perfect comedic timing were exactly what you would want and expect from someone playing the role of Mrs. Lovett. Gay was clearly a crowd favorite and gave a very entertaining performance.

As if music directing this show wasn’t enough, Ian Ferguson also played Anthony, the young and optimistic sailor who falls in love with Sweeney’s daughter, Johanna. His youthful exuberance and naiveté was a stark contrast to the darkness encapsulating the show and other characters. Ferguson’s vocal performance, like Hartman’s, had such a unique tone and energy – unlike the expected musical theatre tenor you typically see in this role. And his ONCE-inspired performance of “Johanna” was a major standout moment. Speaking of Johanna, Carly Wheeler played said role with the perfect mix of battered youthfulness and looming insanity. She explored elements of her character’s (perhaps hereditary) mental instability in her performance, with both comedy and heartfelt emotion. And Wheeler’s soprano voice lent itself well to both her featured solo moments, as well as in the ensemble (particularly during “The Letter”).

Other notable performances included Randy Pearlman’s abrasive and sinister performance of Judge Turpin. While many characters in this show might be considered villainous, Pearlman perfectly embodied the role of creepy empowered villain, whose lustful and selfish actions are what set the ill-fated plot into motion. Judge Turpin’s equally vicious sidekick with an equally menacing saunter (The Beadle) was played by Alex Heika, whose vocal performance and range was simply astonishing.

With only eight actors wearing (basically) the same costume the entire show, costume designer Melissa Panzarello was able to really focus on creating artistically intricate costumes for each character. Using the theme of incorporating found objects into the designs, Panzarello carefully chose specific objects to adorn each character’s costume, based on explicit characteristics. For example, the Beggar Woman’s costume was almost entirely built from plastic trash bags, highlighting the character’s homelessness and pitiable state. And Anthony had what looked like a boy scout sash with badges decorating his button-up shirt, emphasizing his idealistic optimism and youthfulness. Even Johanna’s corset seemed to be made from parts of a straightjacket, reminding us of her occasional unstable state. The details in Panzarello’s costume designs were so meticulous and intelligent, all I wanted to do was admire each piece up close.

Set designer, Bob Lavallee, conceived of a set that was simultaneously simple yet complex. A majority of the walls both onstage and in the audience were painted in such a way that you could imagine a graffiti artist relocated to a mental asylum might embellish. The single movable platform was pretty much the only element of the set that changed throughout the production. However, smaller pieces dressing the stage (likely a marriage of both Lavallee and prop designer Matthew Gray’s designs) are what made the stage’s atmosphere feel so perfectly suffocating. Each item crowding the stage had a clear designation and purpose, and was clearly carefully chosen/built/designed by both Lavallee and Gray. Again, I couldn’t help but wish the production was set up in a kind of SLEEP NO MORE arrangement, so that I could examine each item onstage up close.

Matthew Gray’s prop design was effective, and truly followed through with the overarching theme of found objects. He was able to creatively use random objects to substitute for necessary props in the show. And most objects seen scattered onstage were typically used by the actors at some point during the show as a prop. Gray also acted as sound designer. He cleverly managed to use distorted sound to signify important moments in the show, through the use of microphones and amplification levels, such as in “Epiphany.”

The lighting design, by Amanda West, actually gave me goosebumps. Her ability to program and combine both stage lights and practical onstage lighting was bewildering. There were floor lamps and work lights that actors were moving around the stage with ease, creating beautifully lit shadows and images (each positioning unique and different than the last). West’s innovative lighting design evoked in the audience the exact necessary emotion for each scene.

I hope by now you aren’t still wondering why you need to go see yet another SWEENEY TODD production. If you are, I am here to tell you that you simply can’t miss this incredibly unique experience. The design elements alone are worth the price of admission. And did I mention ALL OF THE ACTORS PLAY INSTRUMENTS (besides the fact that they are some of the most talented local performers I have seen)?! How does that alone not convince you to go see this show? Please support local theatre and “attend the tale of SWEENEY TODD” at Circle Theatre.

Circle Theatre
230 West Fourth Street
Fort Worth, TX 76102

Plays through July 13th.

Thursdays at 7:30pm; Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm; Saturdays at 3:00pm; and Wednesday, July 3rd at 3:00pm.

On July 5th, the performance is interpreted for deaf/hard of hearing.

Adult language & subject matter.

Tickets range from $25-43.

For more information and to purchase tickets, go to or call their box office at 817.877.3040.