Friday, July 14, 2017

A Stirring Production of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd at Dramaworks

When one of the finest regional theatres presents the preeminent work of the greatest living Broadway lyricist and composer (arguably the best ever), we can expect to experience a performance work of art that will be long remembered.  Such is Dramaworks’ production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. It packs such an emotional wallop that the stunned audience left exiting, “wow,” after a standing ovation.

Even though Sweeney Todd flopped on Broadway and the West End when it first opened in 1979 -- critics and the public were not prepared for the bizarre subject matter and Sondheim’s treatment of it in a musical -- the show has become one of his most frequently performed on all levels ranging from expurgated school productions to full-scale professional theatres.  As Sondheim himself commented, if you give an audience a good story, especially an extravagant one, they’ll accept it with pleasure, no matter how bizarre, and idiosyncratic it might be.

Although the plot is fairly well known, a brief summary might be helpful.  The story itself, which can be traced in various English publications going back to the mid 19th century, is based on “The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”  Sondheim saw a retelling of the tale in a 1973 play by Christopher Bond in London and it immediately struck him as material for a musical horror story.

In Sondheim’s version, Sweeney Todd, AKA as the barber Benjamin Barker, has been ruined by Judge Turpin who coveted his wife, Lucy and stole her away by banishing Barker to Botany Bay for life.  But Barker, now under the cloak of a new name, Sweeney Todd, eventually returns to London with the help of Anthony Hope, a young, good natured sailor he befriends.  Todd has one overwhelming yearning aside from escape: retribution.

He sets up a barbershop over Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop -- known for making the worst pies in London.  She is aware of Todd’s past and tells him that his wife, Lucy, had taken poison and their daughter, Johanna, was adopted by the Judge, becoming his ward.  His quest for retribution is intensified.  Little does he know that Mrs. Lovett has her own designs on him, hoping they will ultimately become lovers and has twisted the truth to her own advantage.

Todd challenges Adolfo Pirelli who claims to be "the king of the barbers, the barber of kings" to a contest to inveigle the Judge into his shop. Ultimately, Pirelli becomes the first of Todd’s victims and ingredient in one of Mrs. Lovett’s new, much celebrated ”meat pies.”

Judge Turpin’s attention to Johanna turns from regarding her as his ward to wanting her for his wife.  Anthony, the young sailor, has developed an intense love interest in Johanna as well.  Meanwhile, Mrs. Lovett and Todd are grinding people from all walks of life as their pie enterprise flourishes.

These story lines converge with the death of many of the major characters, sparing the young lovers, Anthony and Johanna, and Tobias Ragg, Pirelli’s assistant who is devoted to Mrs. Lovett.

That’s as brief as I can make it, but this musical is, oh, so much more.  It is genius every step of the way demonstrating Sondheim’s cardinal rules: Content Dictates Form; Less Is More; God is in the Details – all in the service of – Clarity.  

Shane R. Tanner and Company in Sweeney Todd Photo by Cliff Burgess

The very opening line of the show’s first number “The Ballard of Sweeney Todd” is “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.”  Simple enough?  Here’s Sondheim’s take:  If ever there was an example of "God is in the details," it's the line that opens this show: "Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd." Detail 1: the use of "attend" to mean "listen to" is just archaic enough to tell the audience that this will be a period piece. Detail 2: the idea of a "tale" suggests that the audience not take the story realistically but as a fable, and opens them up to accept the bizarrerie of the events which follow; it also promises a story that will unfold like a folk ballad, foreshadowing the numerous choruses of the song that will pop up during the course of the evening. Detail 3: the alliteration on the first, second and fourth accented beats of "Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd" is not only a microcosm of the AABA form of the song itself, but in its very formality gives the line a sinister feeling, especially with the sepulchral accompaniment that rumbles underneath it.

Sondheim is the consummate artist, approaching every lyric, every note in this gorgeous “black operetta” with the same level of thought and detail.  Interestingly, Sondheim’s antipathy for opera led him to construct it mainly as song forms, something between a musical and a ballad opera.  His love of background music in film, and he has scored several, became infused in the music.  Lyrics were a challenge and he decided to invent some colloquialisms to go along with British ones he knew. 

There are a number of chorus numbers, their role ranging from serving as a Greek Chorus and as provocateurs moving the action along.  Sondheim rejects the notion that all people in a chorus will be singing the same thought in harmony.  Thus, chorus and duet numbers in the work can have different overlapping lyrics but all in perfect sync with the music (although, alas, and this does not distract from the overall achievement, not every single word can be heard or assimilated).  

Dramaworks’ interpretation relies on the deft hand of the Director, Clive Cholerton, and the equally important musical director Manny Schvartzman, making his PBD debut.  Cholerton directed the enormously successful 1776, last year’s musical offering from Dramaworks but by his own admission, Sweeney Todd is his favorite show.  Thus, he found it a bit daunting to finally have the opportunity to direct it.  Some previous versions had Sweeney as a crazed mass murderer at the onset, but his vision was to have Sweeney arrive bitter and angry from prison, but not a murderer out of the gate. 

His take came more clearly into view working with the costume designer, Brian O’Keefe, whose idea was to make a strong costume statement -- a “steam punk” look, almost science fiction, a post apocalyptic world (although still strongly grounded in 19th century England).  O’Keefe is also reaching to younger audiences with this gothic but futuristic feel to it -- or perhaps even a contemporary spin given the current political zeitgeist.  The costumes are simply astonishing, from Mrs. Lovett’s seductive lacy top with the tightly strung corset to Johanna’s virginal gowns and nightdresses to Beadle Bamford’s sinister black boots, menacing cudgel and flowing overcoats.

Schvartzman successfully works with the inherent complexity of Sondheim’s music, blending the cast seamlessly with the score and wringing out every drop of color and emotion Sondheim has poured into the work.  He is also the talented pianist and conductor of the show, along with an orchestra of five, including himself.  He clearly achieves his objective of providing the same support as a larger orchestra, hitting every note Sondheim intended.

Shane Tanner returns to the Dramaworks’ musical stage, having last appeared in 1776, this time in the title role of Sweeney.  Tanner is well known for a wide range of musicals, including Sondheim’s Into the Woods, A Little Night Music, and Assassins.   He makes a critical transition when he crosses the line from merely plotting one person’s murder to becoming a mass murderer with ghoulish composure.  Beware of the razor in his hand.  It is the ultimate equalizer of classes.  Tanner’s performance starts with despair and lack of hope, gradually escalating to rage and the audience feels that steady spiral to its core.  He is a Sweeney to be remembered.

Ruthie Stephens in Sweeney Todd Photo by Cliff Burgess

Ruthie Stephens as Mrs. Lovett twists everything in her lust for Todd.  We root in many ways for Lovett and Sweeney as they grind up aristocrats along with everyone else, “Those crunching noises pervading the air?.....It’s man devouring man, my dear.”  Stephens focus is on Mrs. Lovett’s role as an opportunist and as Stephens is from the UK, she expertly capitalizes on the very Brit humor of the part.  Her clarion voice and performance were stunning and when she is on the stage, your eyes never leave her.

The lovely Johanna is central to all the major characters in the work, the Judge lustily desiring her, Lovett wanting her out of the way, Todd trying to protect her, Anthony loving her.  This key soprano role is played by Jennifer Molly Bell.  She is as radiant as her namesake song in the show, “Johanna.”   Bell effectively communicates what it feels like to be a bird trapped in a cage, longing for escape.

Michael McKenzie and Shane R. Tanner in Sweeney Todd Photo by Cliff Burgess

Michael McKenzie, as Judge Turpin, makes a strong case for the Judge being “misunderstood” yet unable to tame his emotions – although by banishing Todd to seduce his wife and claim his child makes him decidedly villainous.  His scene of self-flagellation singing a new verse of Johanna as he voyeuristically peers at his ward is unforgettable.  By the time he finally succumbs under Todd’s razor (the first such attempt going amiss), the audience is as ripe for revenge as Todd.

The good-natured, madly-in-love with Johanna, Anthony Hope, is performed by Paul Louis Lessard (PBD debut) whose tenor voice soars in his numbers.  When Lessard first sings “Johanna” he demonstrates that Sondheim can write a genuinely beautiful love song.  The song is sung in several iterations in the show.  It was one of Sondheim’s favorite’s --   writing songs like these not only appeals to my instinct for intricate plotting, it makes me feel like a playwright, even if the plays are only six or seven minutes long.  Lessard captures Anthony’s sensitivity and determination to have his lovebird.

My own favorite songs from the show, aside from “Joanna,” are “Pretty Women” sung by Todd and the Judge when the Judge is first in the barber’s chair, and the ghoulishly hilarious “A Little Priest,” sung by Mrs. Lovett and Todd which brings the curtain down on the first act.  I might also add “Not While I’m Around,” a beautiful ballad sung by Evan Jones who plays Tobias Ragg (PBD debut) and then is joined by Mrs. Lovett.  It’s an unusual number as it mixes both warmth (Tobias’ take) and evil (Mrs. Lovett’s plotting as she sings).

PBD veteran of many shows, Jim Ballard plays Beadle Bamford, Judge Turpin’s thug and partner in crime.  Ballard’s portrayal is the personification of evil and brutality and that characterization combined with his strong voice left an indelible impression.

Rounding out the cast are Alex Mansoori as Pirelli (PBD debut), Shelley Keelor as the Beggar Woman / Lucy, and the rest of the ensemble, Terry Hardcastle, Christopher Holloway (PBD debut), Hannah Richter (PBD debut), and Victoria Lauzun (PBD debut).  All have fine, powerful, operetta quality voices which enhance this production.

Michael Amico’s scenic design captures the drab factory-like industrial conceit with the worn paneling and the large overhead windows, for letting in light or the color red, symbolizing blood at the appropriate times.  It functions perfectly for the action and atmosphere.

Lighting design is by Donald Edmund Thomas. There are some 380 lighting changes (with as many as 8-10 in a minute), dividing the stage into 22 lighting sections so lights can follow the action.  The lighting has an appropriately grungy feel to it with shadows streaming across the stage.

Sound design is by Brad Pawlak who puts the focus on the music itself as well as a well -timed screeching whistle at emotional peaks.

This PBD production of Sondheim’s masterpiece haunts, staged by a team of professionals worthy of Broadway.  It is a powerful, stunning performance, not to be missed.

Sondheim’s comments are from Stephen Sondheim: Finishing the Hat; Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2010)