Saturday, February 7, 2009

Sweeney Todd, Lakeland Theatre

(Dan Folino as the barber from hell.)

While some regard Sweeney Todd as a Grand Guignol musical featuring homicidal slashings and buckets of plasma splashed across the stage, it could also be viewed as an instructive lesson in how to engineer a successful merger.

Take one revenge-obsessed madman who manufactures corpses, and partner him with a woman who makes meat pies and needs a constant stream of carcasses. Voila! They make a more efficiently scabrous team than Cheney and Rumsfeld at their peak. And in this largely sublime production at the Lakeland Theatre, there are performances that glisten even more brightly than the geysers of blood that flow from freshly opened necks.

Since opening on Broadway in the 1970s, Sweeney has stood as the touchstone for over-the-top operatic melodrama that eventually verges on farce. Almost entirely sung, to the words and music of Stephen Sondheim, the play takes a real serial killer from British history and turns him into a melodic cross between Mad Max in The Road Warrior and Jeffrey Dahmer.

The incredibly demanding score, crafted with awesome skill along with a dash of compositional grandstanding, is a fiendish challenge for any cast. But this group of singers and actors, under the direction of Martin Friedman and the baton of Larry Goodpaster, wins virtually all the battles.

Recently released from prison, Sweeney Todd (whose real name was Benjamin Barker, a barber by trade) wants to get back at the vile and lecherous Judge Turpin. The judge sent Todd away to begin with, on trumped up charges, then raped Todd’s wife, who subsequently tried to poison herself, and took their daughter Johanna as his own. That’s enough motivation for three Charles Bronson movies right there.

Todd goes back to the site of his former barbershop, where he encounters Mrs. Lovett, who runs the worst meat pie shop in London, on the ground floor. She has kept his set of silver-handled razors safe for him, since she’s more than a bit smitten by our tonsorial anti-hero. Once reunited with his razors, Sweeney declares himself complete and conspires with Lovett to maneuver the judge and his flunky Beadle Bamford (Thomas Love) to the shop for a quick trim & puncture of their carotid arteries.

The most challenging role, from both a singing and acting perspective, is the title role. And Lakeland is fortunate to have Dan Folino as Sweeney. Partially hidden behind a prison beard and under a mop of stringy hair, Folino’s eyes are like coals—initially cold and dead and then sparked into furious heat—and he sings with an urgency born of soul-deep loss. His song “Epiphany,” after missing a chance to kill the judge, is a searing testimony as Sweeney dedicates himself to free-range carnage: “We all deserve to die/Tell you why, Mrs. Lovett, tell you why/Because the lives of the wicked should be made brief/For the rest of us, death will be a relief.”

As the scummy Mrs. Lovett, a rather pristine-looking Alison Garrigan handles the comic aspects of her role well, garnering laughs as she imagines her new meat pie partnership with Sweeney in “A Little Priest” (that’s a pie ingredient, not a short vicar). But the pathos of Lovett isn’t delineated as clearly, especially in the relationship with new shop assistant Tobias (an excellent Brian Altman).

The two young lovers, Johanna and sailor Anthony Hope, aren’t given such juicy material, which poses a problem for the actors. Lindsey Sandham sings sweetly but never registers as a dimensional person, largely due to the thin book by Hugh Wheeler. And as Anthony, an earnest and eager Connor O’Brien sings with a voice that draws more attention to its finely trained aspects than to the character at hand.

In smaller roles, Douglas Collier is decadently swinish as the judge and Josh Theilan stands out as the oily street barber Pirelli, who loses a hair-cutting and tooth-pulling contest to Todd. And the Shakespearean surprise ending involves a beggar woman (Nicole Groah) who weaves through the story for a very good reason.

Director Friedman and scenic designer Trad A. Burns have opted for a stripped down look to this production; there’s no slide to transport Sweeney’s victims down to the meat grinder in the basement. According to program notes, the set is intended to suggest London’s Old Bailey court, but the mundane brown paint job on the flats looks more like the interior of a live bait shop in Wisconsin. Most of the 23 players sit in two alcoves when they aren't involved in the action, watching like a silent jury.

The good news is that one stellar performance, several fine ones, well-paced direction, stirring choral work by the company, and some wonderfully energetic blood-lettings easily carry the day. As a result this Sweeney is a rich and memorable evening, for those who aren’t easily grossed out.

Sweeney Todd
Through February 22 at the
Lakeland Theatre,
Lakeland Community College,
7700 Clocktower Drive,
Willougby, 44094, 440-525-7526

No comments: