Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Review: Sondheim's SWEENEY TODD, A Slasher Musical To Die For

Jamey Hood and David St. Louis. All photos by Jordan Kubat/SCR

Done right, the first notes of a musical will tell you exactly what kind of world you’re stepping into. When it comes to the masters, Stephen Sondheim does it better than just about anyone.

The haunting, discordant opening of Company layers repetitive multiple voices as if they are vying for attention inside one’s head, and the sparkling arpeggios and spoken text that begin Sunday in the Park with George blend musical colors like an artist’s sound palette. Both are skillful examples of his economical precision.

For Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, all it takes is one crashing dissonant organ chord spitting hellfire and damnation, followed by another, and then another, to let the audience know this is not a musical about redemption. It’s about revenge.

The South Coast Repertory production of Sweeney Todd led by director Kent Nicholson and musical director David O. shrewdly hits its marks by reveling in both the sensationalism of its Penny Dreadful-inspired story and the warped charm of its irresistibly gruesome humor. Nicholson allows his actors the freedom to play the broad music hall style of comedy to its fullest yet never loses sight of its darker undercurrents.

Scenic designer John Iacovelli adds weight to the Victorian theatricality with a carnival-like curtain announcing the show about to be presented, storybook black and white backdrops, and a vintage proscenium with twin balconies that double as an orchestra pit on one side and the judge’s house/asylum on the other. Lighting (Lap Chi Chu), costumes (Melanie Watnick) and sound (Cricket Myers) all function in tandem to complete the melodramatic (in a good way) feel of the work.

Musically, the score is a dream. You’ve got the luscious long lines and emotional tenderness of “Johanna,” and “My Friends,” the lively, off-kilter syncopations of “The Worst Pies in London,” and the operatic richness of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” all twisted together with a multitude of other themes and surprises that create an incredibly fulfilling musical experience. There’s a lot going on and, happily, this is one musical director who knows how to tease out all its secrets.

The Company of Sweeney Todd

Set in the grimy underbelly of 19th century London, a traveling troupe of actors tell the tale of a wronged barber hell-bent on reclaiming what he’s lost. The former Benjamin Barker, now known as Sweeney Todd (David St. Louis) has spent the last fifteen years in exile after a salacious Judge Turpin (Robert Mamana), aided by his accomplice Beadle Bamford (Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper), conspired to get rid of him in order to have his way with Barker’s wife, before tossing her aside and taking in their daughter to raise as his own.

The wife escaped her humiliation by drinking poison, while the daughter has been shuttered away like a bird in a gilded cage. Now grown, Turpin intends to marry the 15-year-old innocent in an attempt to satisfy his carnal interests and absolve himself of his moral deficiencies. But Todd has returned to make the judge pay and nothing short of murder will satisfy his appetite for blood.

St. Louis is frightening as the title character. His dramatic bass-baritone voice bursts with venom – particularly in his lower tessitura – and his eyes are cold and unforgiving. He is not a man to toy with, nor one you’d want to meet in a dark alley at night. His contained fury is only a hiccup away from exploding but, in the final plot revelation, the actor does an about-face as his rage turns to heartbreaking regret in the face of a tragic loss.

David St. Louis and Jamey Hood

Jamey Hood is the deliciously zealous meat pie maker who has long harbored an affection for Sweeney, so much so that she saved the tools of his trade, two beautiful silver razors, on the chance he would someday return. The Barkers used to live above her pie shop and now that he is back she seizes the opportunity to help him accomplish his task, while also boosting her business and jockeying for romance in the process.

She punctuates musical phrases with her fists, merrily pounding dough to make her “worst pies in London” when we first meet her and every time she has a new thought it is a delight. This is a Mrs. Lovett an audience can love and Hood takes full advantage of the spotlight. By design, she and Sweeney are an odd pair, and Hood and St. Louis make the most of their individual styles. It’s part of what makes this Sweeney Todd so powerful.

The nine actors who fill out the rest of the cast are game for the proceedings so it’s easy to forgive one or two whose passion pushes notes sharp at times or who may step a little hesitantly into the full blush of their characters.

Juliana Hansen is lovely and a bit shrill as Johanna, which is in direct contrast to Archer’s smooth light tenor. It works, given the birdlike references to her character, but it also means their blend doesn’t quite gel when they sing together. Still, the earnestness of their young love is never in question.

Erica Hanrahan-Ball’s defiant Beggar Woman is sadly comical, and as much a commentary on the clash between the social classes as she is a thorn in Sweeneys side. Roland Rusinek (whom I understand has played Pirelli eight times) takes every opportunity to wring humor out of his pompous portrayal of a con man trying to out-con everyone in the room.

Sweeney Todd exists somewhere in the gray area between opera, operetta, and musical theatre. Despite its comic surface, a sense of unease must be sustained throughout the piece for it to be truly successful. South Coast Rep’s revival of Sondheim’s 40-year-old slasher musical is, and it does it with a one-two punch; by keeping you laughing while making your skin crawl. You could say, its a musical to die for.

January 19 - February 16, 2019
South Coast Repertory
655 Town Center Drive 
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Tickets and info:

Devin Archer and Juliana Hansen

Jamey Hood and David St. Louis

Roland Rusinek

Conlan Ledwith and Jamey Hood

Devin Archer, Erica Hanrahan-Ball and David St. Louis

Jamey Hood (center) with Robert Mammana, Katy Tang, Juliana Hansen
and Roland Rusinek

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