Theater Review: SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET (South Coast Rep)

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by Tony Frankel on January 27, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional

IT COULD HAVE BEEN MURDER

Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a musical that never fails to impress, no matter how many times it’s been seen. It tells of Benjamin Barker, a Victorian-era barber who returns to London, having been imprisoned on false charges, to exact vengeance on those responsible for the tattering of his once happy life. With his wife now dead and his daughter a ward of the sinister Judge Turpin – the man who sentenced him on trumped-up charges — Barker, now Sweeney Todd, rents a room above a meat-pie shop. The loopy proprietress, Mrs Lovett, and Todd form a devious plan involving murder and cannibalism, but Hugh Wheeler’s book also offers a glimpse into the mechanics behind lust, greed and revenge, and the consequences to be had as a result of each. One of Sondheim’s best — and maybe even most accessible — score, is rich with sophistication and droll wit.

Every company does it differently, from John Doyle’s pared-down version, wherein actors also played instruments, to the original 1979 production, which used old factory pieces to produce a set that would create the atmosphere of the dark streets and buildings of London, almost as if it was a character itself. South Coast Rep’s admirable but somewhat unsatisfying production opened last night with a look of Penny Dreadfuls — the cheap popular serial literature that introduced Todd in the late 1840s — done Music Hall style with some furniture sliding on- and off-stage and gorgeous black-and-white roll drops to suggest the scene (a landing on either side of the stage served as a second story). John Iacovelli’s set is indeed inspired, but the set-up allowed for us to see actors approaching their scenes from the side, diffusing the shock value for some entrances.

And this production could have used more oomph. It’s just not as terrifying, funny and romantic as it should be. With an eleven-member cast handling all the roles and also serving as the chorus, something is lost in terms of scale and impact. Yet having a small ensemble means we hear all the lyrics, normally a difficult feat when a huge cast tries to spew Sondheim’s tricky words simultaneously — although Cricket Myers’ sound is praiseworthy. But this is handily one of the most difficult scores in musical theater history, as many numbers are operatic in nature, so while the vocals easily impressed, the 160-minute show seemed to tax some on opening night. David O’s 10-person orchestra sounded awesome — aided greatly by Mr. O on keyboards — but some of the orchestrations didn’t pummel us as they should.

The score is so dense as to be a lot to take in at once, which is why director Kent Nicholson faltered at his post by not creating more humorous and scary bits. (When a young apprentice, Tobias, becomes hot, he removes a wig, but we aren’t supposed to know it’s a wig; here, it looks so obviously like a wig that the removal didn’t get a laugh.) The audience chortled at Sondheim’s witty lyrics but rarely at stage business. And why do some actors have accents and others don’t?

The casting worked well overall: As Mrs. Lovett, Jamey Hood is a deliciously saucy pie-maker, whose ultimate goal is to wed and bed Todd, wonderfully articulated in “By the Sea.” Vocally transplendent, Roland Rusinek blew me away with a powerful tenor and deadpan glances; I’m thrilled that the second verse of “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” was reinstated here, as it’s so often cut, so we could enjoy Rusinek biting into a limited role. Conlan Ledwith is charming as simple, trusting Tobias and shows an endearing vocal sensitivity in “Not While I’m Around,” one of Sondheim’s most indelible songs. With particularly nuanced acting from Devin Archer as Anthony, the sailor who rescued Todd at sea and has now fallen for Johanna, a role that is normally heroic becomes a lad who is befuddled by this whole love thing.

Both Erica Hanrahan-Bell as a Beggar Woman and Juliana Hansen as Johanna did their jobs well, especially filling out chords with their solid soprano voices, but we should be a little scared of these two, and more than doubt their sanity — Johanna seemed just excitable and the Beggar Woman was merely intrusive and salacious. Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper may not be fully menacing as the evil Beadle, but he sure commands the stage when he lets loose with his bright, finely focused tenor. Robert Mammana’s Judge Turpin is hardly creepy; he’s somewhat attractive and well-behaved; the scene in which Turpin flagellates himself while dreaming of sex with his ward (“Johanna”) is also normally cut, so while I applaud putting it back in, it’s just not as shocking as it could have been.

Rock-solid in appearance but a bit hoarse in voice (which was thick and awesome on the low notes), David St. Louis lacks a multi-layered performance as Sweeney — it was all glaring, somber anger instead of revealing the character’s struggle between the pursuit of vengeance and the restoration of the family that once gave him hope, which is why his “Epiphany” felt strained. Looking great in costumer Melanie Watnick’s sharply tailored, black frock coat, Brent Schindele gave sterling vocal support, as always, but his Bedlam owner, Jonas Fogg, was also oddly lacking a macabre and ghoulish flavor.

It’s a damned shame that cost-cutting efforts are leading to smaller productions, but the lack of suspense (and spurting blood, for that matter) makes me wonder if Mr. Nicholson — even within his premise that this is a traveling troupe of actors — thought that OC audiences would be startled or somehow offended. I’m rather certain those who bolted at intermission did so simply because they weren’t hooked.

photos by Jordan Kubat/SCR

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
South Coast Repertory
655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa
ends on February 16, 2019
for tickets, call 714.708.5555 visit SCR

{ 1 comment }

Michael Kane January 29, 2019 at 6:27 pm

You nailed it. I can’t remember when I’ve see a more lackluster, lame production. With the exception of the singers who played Mrs. Lovett, Beggar Woman, and Toby, the production sucked. Use the money and buy the original production on DVD (and avoid the Depp version – what a mess!).

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