A foggy ‘Sweeney Todd’ at Theo Ubique

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Jacquelyne Jones as Mrs. Lovett and Philip Torre as Sweeney Todd in Theo Ubique’s “Sweeney Todd.” Credit: Cody Jolly

I love me some Theo Ubique – the scrappy, award-winning storefront that’s made quite a name for itself (and also a new home, opening shortly up the road from its current residence at the No Exit Cafe in Rogers Park).

I also love me some Sweeney Todd. It’s my favorite musical, in fact.

I’ve seen lots of things at Theo. I’ve seen lots of Sweeneys. I know what Theo is capable of. I also know how far a great production of Sweeney can go.

So, when I heard Sweeney was replacing Finian’s Rainbow as Theo Ubique’s last show in their iconic space, I was delighted. Yeah, sure, Finian’s fits the shamrock season, but it’s a show with, well, a lot of issues. And I wanted Theo to leave their space with a bang.

Also, there’s an intimate production of Sweeney playing Off Broadway that people keep raving at me about. I tried to see it when I was in NYC recently, but couldn’t get a ticket. However, I was like: no matter. We got Theo Ubique’s production coming up – a company that’s perfected the up-close, intimate theatre experience (with food and drink served by the cast) without compromising the gritty, bold storefront aesthetic that Chicago is so well-known for.

Welp. I’m still waiting for that production.

Granted, Theo’s production isn’t bad at all. It’s solid, professional, extremely well sung (especially Philip Torre as the title role – SWOON) and has moments of YES.

But, boy, I had a hard time keeping my eyes open.

Perhaps it was due to it being a Monday night, or I’ve been over-saturated with Sweeney, or the incessant fake fog that fills the No Exit Cafe’s space and literally made my eyes red with irritation.

But, no – I think it’s because the risks I expected from a company that staged a gender-bendy Man of La Mancha or a scrappily delightful Cats or brought the sun of Italy into their blackbox space with Light in the Piazza just weren’t here.

From the moment the muted steam whistle hesitantly tooted the opening, I knew something was off. Actors gave it their all, but it felt like they were operating in different worlds, and relying on shtick instead of substance.

I think most surprisingly was the use of space, which Theo has always excelled in. While they’ve done the smart and obvious things like having Lovett (the spirited and enjoyable Jacquelyne Jones) operate her pie shop behind the cafe counter, I’ve also never felt so removed from the most intense moments of the show. I mean, Sweeney’s barber chair is tucked away in the corner of the stage, behind a structural pipe. And a main entrance way serves so many functions, when (spoiler!) Sweeney throws Lovett into her “oven,” (i.e., tosses her into a curtained doorway) it’s not entirely clear what’s happened. Furthermore, actors are running about so much to make their entrances, it feels chaotic and cluttered.

Also, so many overlooked details. Why use plastic pies that look so fake (and at times dropped on the floor and bounced around) in a setting that demands authentic confectionery? Why not bother to have a meat grinder onstage? Why back down on having visible blood (beyond a polite squirt punctuated with red light)? Why rely on keyboard-heavy orchestrations when you have a viable band that could bring a rollicking music hall vibe to it? Why have Sweeney compete to win a shave-off with a clean-shaven man while Pirelli (the winning Ryan Armstrong) shaves a man with a full beard?

I know Theo Ubique could do better. But if you haven’t visited Sweeney in a while, it hits all the notes, quite literally. Really an amazing sounding production, and the small ensemble does a LOT of heavy lifting. Brava. Also, Megan Elk may be the best Beggar Woman I’ve seen.

“Sweeney Todd” plays through April 29 at the No Exit Cafe. More info here >

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