Monday, September 24, 2012

THEATRE REVIEW: "Sweeney Todd" at Moonlight Stage Productions

God, it’s good!:
Moonlight takes a stab (and a few slashes) at Sondheim in its dark and demonically-delightful season-closer 

By Donnie Matsuda

Just take one look at the publicity pictures for Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and you can tell that Moonlight’s production, which plays at the outdoor amphitheatre now through October 6, will be unlike any stage version of the 1979 musical masterwork you’ve ever seen before.

That’s because director Steve Glaudini’s vision is one of a younger, creepier, and more internally angst-ridden barber who, filled with equal parts rage and revenge, keeps a tight lid on his emotions because he’s been beaten down by the injustices of his past (with both his wife Lucy and daughter Johanna wrongly taken away from him).  It is no surprise then, that he is easily bullied and manipulated by the much more strong-willed, pie-curious proprietor, Mrs. Lovett.  As kooky as she is ruthless, the maternal mastermind of this revival is harsher and more brazen than traditional interpretations and she can easily be summed up in three words: Helena Bonham Carter.  Yes, for his Moonlight staging, Glaudini takes his inspiration directly from the 2007 Tim Burton film, with both impressive and intriguing results.  

Robert J. Townsend as Sweeney (foreground) and Bets Malone as Mrs. Lovett (background).  Photo by Ken Jacques.
Based on a melodramatic play by Christopher Bond, Sweeney Todd is a musical thriller created by musician and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.  Sondheim, along with librettist Hugh Wheeler, adapted Bond’s play to tell the story of Benjamin Barker who returns to 19th century London after being banished to a far-off prison colony for fifteen years on a trumped-up charge.  When Barker (returning under the alias of Sweeney Todd) finds out that his wife has poisoned herself and that the corrupt judge who exiled him now has his daughter, Johanna, he becomes obsessed with seeking revenge on a town and on a world that has done him wrong.  With the help of his right hand woman, Mrs. Lovett, and his left hand razor, Sweeney becomes the consummate “demon barber,” as he slits the throats of unknowing customers and sends their bodies down the hatch to be ground up and baked into savory and sweet “meat” pies.  

Sweeney Todd has been touted as Sondheim’s “masterpiece among masterpieces.”  It originally opened on Broadway in 1979 and in the West End in 1980, winning both the Tony Award for Best Musical and the Olivier Award for Best New Musical.  In the many years since, it has been revived and awarded countless times, with its most recent London revival opening in 2004 and its most recent Broadway revival opening in 2005.  Both revivals were directed by John Doyle and employed a 10-person cast that played the score themselves on musical instruments they carried around the stage.  There have also been numerous opera house productions (including three New York City Opera runs in 1984, 1986, and 2004) as well as several concert stagings (most notably the Kelsey Grammer-Christine Baranski “Reprise!” concert version in LA and the George Hearn-Patti LuPone semi-staged concert version in NY and SF, the latter of which was immortalized on DVD).  And, of course, the 2007 Johnny Depp-Helena Bonham Carter film version which brought a sexier, more sultry version of Sweeney to mainstream audiences all across America.    

Randall Dodge as Judge Turpin and Jason W. Webb as Beadle Bamford.  Photo by Ken Jacques.
Thus, reviving such a masterpiece of American musical theatre is certainly not an easy task to pull off, but thankfully, Moonlight’s Glaudini has a lot of source material at his (ahem) “disposal” and he also has an ace cast of stage veterans who thoughtfully (ahem) “flesh out” all their creepy characters with ease.  At the helm of it all is golden-voiced, bass-baritone Robert J. Townsend as the throat-slitting barber, who manages to ignore many of the famous Sweeneys who have come before him (Len Cariou, Bob Gunton, George Hearn, Michael Cerveris, and Johnny Depp just to name a few), and instead, makes the role his own.  Looking as pale as a ghost with dark Gothic highlights, Townsend shows a softer side of Sweeney as he slowly pulls away the layers of protective armor to reveal the terribly tortured soul underneath it all.  Every bit his equal is the devilishly droll Bets Malone as the half-crazed, half-crude Mrs. Lovett.  When Malone takes the stage, she owns it and steals every single scene she is in.  Her spot-on solo, “By the Sea” is easily the best number in the entire production, and her brilliantly realized, tongue-in-cheek duet with Townsend, “A Little Priest,” is a close second.

As the two young lovers, Anthony Carillo shines as Anthony Hope and Joanna Holliman sings exquisitely as Johanna.  Together, they share some playful onstage chemistry that is only topped by the impressive timbre of their pitch-perfect pipes, which are elegantly showcased in “Johanna,” “Kiss Me,” and “Quartet.”  Randall Dodge lends a certain suaveness, rather than slime, as the detestable Judge Turpin and Jason W. Webb is a portly Beadle Bamford who is as foppish as he is conniving.  And the eager and dim-witted Tobias is played to perfection by a smooth-voiced Jordan Aragon.  In smaller roles, Jason Maddy is both entertaining and intriguing as the flamboyant Italian barber, Adolfo Pirelli, and Jessica Bernard as the Beggar Woman is appropriately frazzled and mentally fractured, as we see in an oddly pantomimed segment before her throat is finally slit. 

Joanna Holliman as Johanna and Anthony Carillo as Anthony Hope.  Photo by Ken Jacques.
The rest of the large ensemble cast (19 members in all) provides outstanding vocal support, and, singing gloriously together, they do more than justice to the intricate and magnificent harmonies interwoven throughout the thundering Sondheim score.  One does wish their staging could have been as seamless as their singing, however.  Instead, they scurry onstage for each group number, sing their verses straight to the audience, and then disperse as inelegantly as possible.  Not to mention, the overlapping nature of Sondheim’s lyrics make it virtually impossible for their individual lyrics to be understood (which would be the case no matter how good the sound or how perfect the diction), so they do end up sounding like a muddled mess throughout most of their numbers…but what a gorgeously harmonized mess they create!

While Glaudini’s characters borrow quite a bit from the film version, his technical elements are more in line with Hal Prince’s massively-scaled 1979 Broadway production.  The set designed and built by Citrus College is evocative and sparse with a large central cube that rotates to reveal the rooms within Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop and houses Sweeney’s barber stuff (including a fascinating hair-cutting and hair-raising “ejection chair”) up top.  Behind and around it are large stairs and scaffolds that constantly get moved about and framing it all is a large stationary backdrop that evokes an old-fashioned etching of a London street scene.  These scenic elements are eerily lit by Jean-Yves Tessier, while Chris Luessmann provides plenty of spooky sounds and shrill whistles in his bloodcurdling sound design.  And while most of the tattered costumes are rented from the Theatre Company in Upland, costume designer Renetta Lloyd provides some special and spiffy designs just for Mr. Todd and Mrs. Lovett.

Bets Malone and Robert J. Townsend.  Photo by Ken Jacques.
Last but certainly not least, Musical Director and Conductor Elan McMahan deserves major kudos for handling the complex Sondheim score with such power and panache.  McMahan and her lush 24-piece orchestra blast through the rich, angular harmonies of this, one of the most challenging scores in the musical theatre cannon, without missing a beat – or a note- and their full, collective effect is truly “to die for.”    
While Moonlight’s production may not necessarily be true to the spirit of the original Sweeney Todd, it remains a remarkable revival and one that will impress with its sheer vocal prowess, its edgier and more thrilling conceit, and its incredibly rich orchestrations.  Much like the sought-after meat pies that emerge in Act Two, this Sweeney Todd is an acquired taste, filled with savory bits and satisfying songs that will no doubt leave you wanting more.  

Things to know before you go: Sweeney Todd plays at Moonlight Stage Production’s Amphitheatre through October 6, 2012.  Running time is 3 hours with a 15 minute intermission.  Performances are Wednesday through Sunday nights (no performances on October 3 and October 7).  Curtain is at 7:30pm.  Tickets are $15-$50.  For more information or to purchase tickets, call (760) 724-2110 or visit

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