"Now This Might Seem a Little Stringy, But Then Again...It's a Fiddle Player!"
Despite the body count to rival an action movie, and the protagonist who announces in ringing tones that we all deserve to die, “Sweeney Todd” has an uncanny way of sending musical theater audiences into raptures of glazed-eyed bliss.
That was certainly the case on Friday night, when Rose Center Theater presented a splendid starry concert version, featuring the formidable Chris Caputo (“Man of La Mancha;” “My Fair Lady”) as the bloodthirsty barber, Stephanie Bull (“How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying;” “Failure: A Love Story”) as the meat-pie maven, Mrs. Lovett, Olivia Aniceto (“Beauty and the Beast;” “Gypsy”) as Johanna, Jack Borenstein (“Beauty and the Beast;” “Mary Poppins”) as Anthony and Dale Jones (“It’s a Wonderful Life;” “Oliver”) as the Judge.
Supporting roles included Trevin Stephenson (“Lil’ Abner;” “42nd Street”) as Beadle, Garrett Brown (“Spamalot;” “The Little Mermaid”) as Tobias, Mary Murphy-Nelson (“No No Nanette;” “Damn Yankees”) as the Beggar Woman and Vincent Aniceto (“The King and I;” “Miss Saigon”) as Pirelli. And the amazingly talented ensemble included Susann Cellier (“Mary Poppins;” “Spamalot”), Kristin Henry (“Beauty and the Beast;” “Jesus Christ, Superstar”), Jimmy Hippensteil (“Walt Disney Company;” “The Young Americans”), Jesse Reitz (“Company;” Godspell”), and Cat Valentine (“The Secret Garden;” “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”).
Continuing on from his 2021 outdoor concert series, Director Tim Nelson offers a conventional but no less powerful take on Stephen Sondheim’s grand guignol revenge opera in a stripped-down affair, featuring Sondheim’s robust, vibrant symphonic score, and a clever running motif of accessories transformed into improbable but effective props, save for Todd’s shimmering razors.
Such gestures chisel away nicely at the proverbial fourth wall separating the cast from the open-air audience, snuggled tightly in their warm and toasties and vizards and veils — or whatever’s left of that wall after the cast delivers a sledgehammer thwack to it during the show’s opening “Ballad of Sweeney Todd.” After dutifully filing on stage in all black costuming and resting their librettos on a row of music stands, the cast proceeds to go bold and impulsive in the opening ballad, ruthlessly snapping out ominous melodies, and quickly allaying any fears that one may be in for an old-fashioned-like “concert” performance.
A latter-day Jacobean tragedy with roots that date back to mid-19th century magazine serials, “Sweeney Todd” is, like many a Sondheim show, a pained study in unrequited love and the unresolved self. Sweeney is himself the victim of another man’s adulterous passion, and is in turn lusted after by the calculating spinster Lovett, who dreams of seaside bliss with her newfound beau, while all he dreams of is rivulets of blood dripping from his shears. Unfortunately, none of this ends happily. Yet the forward thrust of the drama as it reels into nightmare territory remains a model of musical theater writing.
“There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit and the vermin of the world inhabit it, and its morals aren’t worth what a pig could spit, and it goes by the name of London…At the top of the hole sit a privileged few, making mock of the vermin in the lonely zoo, turning beauty to filth and greed…I too, have sailed the world and seen its wonders, for the cruelty of men is as wondrous as Peru, but there’s no place like London!”
Your perspective on the ride depends on where and when you get on the train, and for this writer, my first true taste of Stephen Sondheim’s blood-spattered horror musical “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” came in the form of Tim Burton’s 2007 film version. And, after that movie’s majestic, gory opening credits sequence ended, it was Johnny Depp – made to look like another Burton character, Christopher Walken’s Max Shreck in Batman Returns – who hissed the seething words above, as his ship sailed into a phantasmagorical vision of London at night. I was, of course, hooked by every second of the film at the time, every note of every song, even as the jets of life’s blood came screaming out of the unfortunate stubbly men who had the misfortune of sitting in Sweeney Todd’s barber chair.
Mr. Caputo, who previously wielded Sweeney’s gleaming silver blades for an on-stage production in this same theater, cuts a commanding figure, not just because of his booming bass-baritone, but because he finds the crippled humanity inside the blood-thirsty barber, the once loving husband and father driven mad by revenge. His rich, pitch-dark voice soared into the night air with an enveloping intensity, filling the makeshift atrium behind the theater with Sweeney’s thundering avowals of vengeance for the brutal treatment of his beloved wife.
Ms. Bull has been well-known as a musical theater specialist in the SoCal area for some time, and indeed, her performance here was by virtually all measures a triumphant one. Scuttling around the stage with a variety of characterful silly walks, jabbering in a perfect cockney accent, and singing with impressive range, she put a lively personal stamp on the role with little bits of cute comic business.
But Ms. Bull’s real victory was in avoiding the gargoylish, cartoonish excesses the role sometimes encourages in creating a fully realized character. Desperate to win out over her rivals for Sweeney’s affection — those gleaming blades — her Mrs. Lovett flaps around with antic nervousness. In what is one of the most chilling scenes in all of musical theater, she revealed through the fluttering anxiety in her voice how her mothering of little Tobias (the excellent Garrett Brown) is transformed into the spontaneous plotting of his death, even as he is singing of his devotion to her.
Mr. Aniceto may not have the “ample” frame that the fake-Italian barber Pirelli is supposed to boast — he’d only make for a handful of meat pies, I fear — but he brought his usual florid comic instincts to this chewy role, relishing the bad-comic-opera dialogue and singing with a bright, clear tone and authentic accent. One of my most enjoyable roles.
Mr. Borenstein was an affecting, ardent Anthony Hope, and invoked much empathy in his characterization of the role. His opposite, the ingénue Johanna, was sung sweetly by Ms. Aniceto with a crystal-clear soprano and a dash of spunk. Veteran actor Mr. Jones (who you usually can see every Christmas as Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol”) intriguingly eased up on the sinister aspects of Judge Turpin, turning this stock villain recognizably human for a change (if you remember, the judge’s character is normally prone to lash himself, both vocally and literally, with sturdy fervor in the juddering aria of self-disgust). Trevin Stephenson, in normal fashion, played the duplicitous character, Beadle, the judge’s nefarious assistant, inerrably. Mr. Stephenson’s vocal range was truly impressive, and stood out in many of his solid stratosphere-reaching notes.
Other shoutouts were Mr. Brown’s sensitive, well-liked Tobias, who also effectively raised the bar vocally. Ms. Murphy-Nelson’s whimsical Beggar Woman was a definite crowd-pleaser as well, and from the first few notes, Mr. Hippensteil’s frightfully somber opening gave us the weight of the show in short order.
There are trade-offs in seeing “Sweeney Todd” in concert, of course. The plot’s intricate comings and goings are not easy to delineate clearly, and the horrific action is almost impossible without a full stage of scenery. A newcomer to the show with no plot knowledge would probably find the convolutions difficult to follow. But, while the concert version of “Sweeney Todd” may stint slightly on the murderous chills to some degree, the Rose Center Theater troupe still managed to send thrills of pleasure rippling through the audience with their unique balance of voices and action.
"Sweeney Todd—In Concert," playing for two days only, February 19th and 20th at 7pm, in the Rose Center Theater atrium. Tickets are on sale now at https://www.rosecentertheater.com/ Please see the website also for particular requirements on attendance in regard to COVID-19. Thank you.
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report