Theo Ubique bids farewell to the No Exit Café with a bloody good show.
For its last full-length production in the No Exit Café, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre is putting its audiences within sniffing distance of Mrs. Lovett’s famous meat pies. And while Sweeney Todd is a show made for operatic houses, it fits quite snugly in this theater’s long-time Rogers Park home. As cast members move in and about the audience—a certain amount of twisting and neck-craning is involved—they drag the grime and the violence of Sondheim’s famous score with them. And when they get their throats slit, well, just be warned there are splash zones.
Some musicals can be gotten away with, but Sweeney isn’t one of them. If your actors aren’t spot-on singers, they might as well be treated like one of Todd’s many victims and flushed down the chute. But director Fred Anzevino has assembled an able troupe; not only can these actors sing the show, but they can sing it at close range where there’s little room for error.
Philip Torre stars as the titular Demon Barber of Fleet Street. On top of a sternum-rattling bass. Torre brings a rough crudeness to his Todd that befits the jagged path of destruction he wreaks. His Sweeney starts as a big, sad-eyed lug, but when he turns to the dark side, he almost turns into Jason Voorhees: a lumbering, slashing death machine.
Torre’s Sweeney is well-matched with Jacquelyne Jones’s Mrs. Lovett, who radiates a keen intelligence that’s only sharpened by her moral flexibility. Jones sings the part well and brings both a spark-plug intensity and just a hint of sweetness. Despite the two of them murdering a lot of people and baking them into pies, you almost want them to get away with it, if only for her sake. It’s a crucial ingredient to any production of Sweeney Todd. Otherwise it’s just a blood-soaked fairy tale.
Rounding out the cast are Cecilia Iole and Nathan Carroll as Sweeney’s daughter, Johanna, and her paramour, Anthony; John B. Leen as a Voldemortian Judge Turpin; Kevin Webb (at times hilarious, at other times a bit much) as a foppishly serpentine Beadle; Ryan Armstrong as Todd’s first victim, the blowhard Pirelli; Megan Elk as the old Beggar Lady; and Frankie Leo Bennett as a tragically adorable Toby. The supporting cast is strong enough that you’re sad when the leads start bumping them off.
There’s occasional difficulty balancing the singing with the sound from music director Jeremy Ramey and the band—the price of playing in such an intimate space and without microphones. And the lighting instruments executing James Kolditz’s design can’t always keep up with the cast’s swift movements across Ben Lipinski’s set; as a result, you have more than one moment of actors singing from the dark.
Then again, nobody’s ever come to a Theo Ubique show at the No Exit for expensive sets or state-of-the-art effects. We’ll see how the move to a new space on Howard Street impacts the company’s aesthetic. But in bidding goodbye to the funky hole-in-the-wall where it’s staged 14 years’ worth of shows,, Sweeney Todd makes for a bloody good send-off.
Theo Ubique at the No Exit Café. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Hugh Wheeler. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 40mins; one intermission.