Sunday, June 16, 2002

Sweeney Todd

Rape, kidnapping, murder, cannibalism.

Hardly the stuff of musical theatre.

And yet, out of these elements, Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler have created the highly powerful, popular musical, "Sweeney Todd," currently running at Davis Musical Theatre Company.

Based on a Victorian melodrama, this is the story of Benjamin Barker, a young, newly married barber who has set up his home and business in London. His beautiful young wife catches the eye of a lecherous local Judge, who has Barker sent off to a penal colony in Australia on a trumped up charge. He rapes the wife, and adopts their year old daughter.

When Barker returns to London, fifteen years later, it is under the new name of Sweeney Todd and he is bent on revenge. With the help of Mrs. Lovett, a tavern owner who bakes "the worst pies in London," he re–establishes himself as a barber and sets out to destroy his foes, one by one.

But how does one dispose of the bodies? Well, if you live over a bakery with a nice big oven, run by a woman who is hard up for meat for her pies, the answer seems logical. Mrs. Lovett soon becomes the toast of the town for her wonderful meat pies, and Sweeney Todd continues to supply her with fresh meat.

A barrel of laughs, no? Well, this isn't exactly a comedy but there are enough laughs in it to keep the audience awake.

Unfortunately, this is a very verbal show and a lot of plot exposition and some of the humor is lost by articulation difficulty with the chorus in particular. While they do a decent job, one could wish for more precision in diction.

This production, directed by Steve Isaacson, has some very strong points and some weaker ones. Heading the list of strong points are Patrick Stratton, a wonderful Sweeney Todd. Stratton's pain, anger, and angst are palpable. Without a strong Sweeney Todd, this is a show that goes nowhere.

Equally important is a strong Mrs. Lovett, and Lenore Sebastian more than fills the bill. She is a strong comedic presence and her duet with Todd, "A Little Priest" is particularly delightful.

Jason Stevens also gives a sincere performance as Anthony Hope, the sailor who has befrended Todd and who later falls in love with his daughter, Johanna (a lovely, sweet soprano of Pheonix [sic] Vaughn).

Carl Dvorcek in the small role of the rival barber, Pirelli, is a bit over the top, but handles the role well. His sidekick, Tobias Ragg (Seth Arnopole), however, suffered from projection difficulties and was very difficult to hear.

Others in the cast included Richard Spierto as Judge Turpin, Michael Campbell as the Beadle, and Megan O'Laughlin, the beggar woman, earning her living as a whore, whose secret is crucial to the play.

Sarah Bray has designed a wonderfully versatile set which rotates in all sorts of directions, and Isaacson has cleverly stationed chorus members, as street people at various places around the stairs and walls to hold the piece in place. It works very well.

The barber chair, originally designed by Walt Sykes, has been refurbished by Ben Wormeli and still works very well--how it works is probably best left a surprise.

There is a new fog machine and it's difficult to know what to say. While the effect is fine, it distracts from action on stage because it makes a whooshing sound whenever a puff of fog is emitted. Distribution is also a problem, since it seemed to concentrate in one point on the stage and eventually the fog got so thick that it totally engulfed the performers, making it briefly impossible to see them at all.

(Actors might also take note of the fact that dead bodies do not reposition themselves inside trunks!)

Mark Allen's lighting design creates a gloomy London and effectively sets the tone for the choir narration.

There is a seventeen piece orchestra playing for this show, which is amazing, given the small backstage quarters, but they do a fine job.

The show is not without its problems. (The tempo seemed a bit slow on opening night, but hopefully this will pick up as everyone settles into their roles.) However, in spite of the problems, it's a worthwhile show, defintely not for younger children, but for those with sophisticated tastes, it should provide an entertaining evening.

(One last note--real meat pies are sold in the lobby at intermission--order them before you go in for act 1--Steve Isaacson assures me that no real people were used in the filling.)