LYRIC’S UPGRADED “SWEENEY TODD” IS ONE HOT TICKET!

January 2016

SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET opened last weekend at Lyric Music Theater. If, like me, you had seen a previous local production of Sweeney Todd and might not care to see such a gore-based melodrama again, this is the time to give this Tony Award-winning musical by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler a second chance.

Lyric’s presentation of Sweeney Todd is sensational. Director Michael Donovan applies some nourishing ingredients in serving up some brilliant comfort food to fans of Victorian-era British musicals, from the big blockbusters to music halls. Donovan’s menu calls for a fresh, sleek, upgraded interpretation of an allegory played out with precision pacing and blocking, minimum sets, maximum audience engagement, and a cast to die for (i.e. all phenomenal talents).

From the moment the cast makes its grand march entrance, the journey to 19th century London begins. Fifteen years after being wrongly exiled by a corrupt Judge Turpin, barber Benjamin Barker returns as Sweeney Todd to exact revenge against Turpin and his accomplice Beadle Bamford for injustices done to his family. He re-establishes his barber shop on the second floor of Mrs. Lovett’s meat pie shop and the two co-conspire the bloody path of revenge that brings on many twists but leaves only one survivor.

The acting is first-rate! Zack Handlen does well juxtaposing the emotional states of Benjamin Bamford and Sweeney Todd, and Amy Torrey is a delightfully disturbed (Are You Being Served?) Mrs. Lovett. Their levels of communication and mis-communication are effective and endearing. Darrell Leighton played Judge Turpin admirably and Adam Gary Normand (arguably the busiest and one of the best actors in Southern Maine) was commanding as Beadle Bamford. The love interest of Anthony Hope, a young friend of Todd’s, and Todd’s beautiful young daughter Johanna, was exquisitely portrayed by Schuyler White and Rachel Henry.

At first, I didn’t know what to make of Tommy Waltz in the role of Tobias Ragg. But by Act 2, I grew perfectly comfortable with this perfectly uncomfortable character, right through his blood-licking finale…sensitive and bizarre artistry at work. Cudos, Tommy!

I was also a bit disturbed to see a woman playing the role of Signor Pirelli. While I’m not a fan of “pants” roles, I must confess my issue was resolved when I heard Molly Harmon’s powerful and pristine mezzo soprano voice. Bravo!

But as is very often the case, the ensemble deserves the biggest applause. Standing O to Liz Kershenbaum (Beggar Woman), Sean Senior (Jonas Fogg) and John Ambrose, Alison Bogannan, Joanna Clarke, Joelle Clingerman, Justin Gifford, Jenna Guiggey, Michael Jenkins, Jessica Libby, Kelly Mosher, Jericah Potvin, Colby Therrien and David Aaron Van Duyne. In this case, the ensemble remained on stage throughout the show, stationed at appointed places, constantly changing scenes and characters, weaving the rapidly-developing tale like a soap opera without commercials…AND singing.

The singing is remarkable, if not flawless. Hello? Sondheim! Not one cast member is weak. To assemble such a collection of powerful light-operatic voices and to build an essential wall of complex chorus harmonies is an accomplishment not to be taken lightly.

The recurring Ballad of Sweeney Todd themes were all crisp and more interesting than the last. The Company sang and moved like a well-oiled machine. God, That’s Good! was especially lively. Several quartets (Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir, Kiss Me, Johanna) were fun and invigorating.

Highlights also included Torrey’s The Worst Pies in London, and other versions of Johanna and Kiss Me that featured the light and lovely vocals of White and Henry. Handlen and Torrey nailed a rousing version of A Little Priest, and Torrey later joined Waltz for a powerful and poignant Not While I’m Around.

The music is primo! Hello? Sondheim! And Hello Evan Cuddy, a gifted young musician/actor/teacher from Portland via USM and Susquehanna University. This is only his second job as Music Director (the first was Shrek The Musical at Portland Players recently) but he will no doubt be in high demand after proving his command for this score. Did I mention Sondheim? Sondheim’s music runs the gamut of musical colors and emotions, from stunning melodies to clashing rapid patters, sometimes together, oftentimes against each other, in and out of every key, against meters, against instinct. Cuddy’s baptism-by-Sondheim was most successful…both the sweet and the sour were delicious!

Honorable mentions go to Donovan and his set building crew for creating one of the most simple and effective sets, and to Don Smith for his captivating lighting that added eeriness and miles of depth to the Lyric stage.

SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET runs through Saturday, January 30. Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM, Sundays at 2:30 PM. TIX: http://www.lyricmusictheater.org, ticketsyric@gmail.com or (207) 774-1421.

“Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.” You’ll be glad you did.

###

–Louis Philippe

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