Monday, June 14, 2010

Sweeney Todd

Music drowns out well conceived SWEENEY TODD at Cain Park!

‘SWEENEY TODD,’ the 1979 Tony Award winning musical, that has music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Hugh Wheeler (‘A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC,’ ‘CANDIDE.’ ‘PACIFIC OVERTURES,’ ‘MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS’), is now on stage in Cain Park’s intimate Alma Theatre. It is based on Christopher Bonds’ 1973 play of the same name.

It tells the story of Benjamin Barker, aka Sweeney Todd, who returns to London from Australia after spending fifteen years in prison on false charges. When he learns from his former landlady, Mrs. Lovett, that his wife poisoned herself after being raped by the Judge who wrongly imprisoned him and who took Barker’s daughter to be his ward, Barker, as Todd, vows revenge. The plot, full of twists, turns, gore and more gore, is not the stuff from which musicals are usually crafted.

The score, which contains some of Sondheim’s most memorable music, includes “Johanna,” “Pretty Woman,” the repulsively hysterical “A Little Priest,” and the brilliant, “Not While I’m Around.”

Cain Park’s small Alma Theatre creates problems for staging the play. ‘SWEENEY TODD’ is not an intimate play. It is bigger, much bigger than life itself. Many special effects are needed to make the visual images real. It also is not an easy space for a musical. Since it is basically open aired, the vocal sounds often float out into trees and open spaces and the sounds of the street sometimes invade the performance space. The speaker system is far above the heads of the audience, making hollow spaces in the first half dozen rows, even though the cast wears microphones. The humidity also absorbs the sounds.

In such a setting, a musical director must be careful to tone down the orchestra. Unfortunately, Jodie Ricci does not take into consideration that her orchestra is not the center of the universe, the words to the songs are, and her having the instruments playing at full blast drowns out the voices. Since Sondheim’s vocals carry the meaning of the play, this leaves the audience frustrated in trying to grasp the ideas.

Ricci’s lack of control of the musical sounds basically ruins a focused directing job by Paul Gurgol and mars the strong singing abilities of the cast.

Since the play’s style is based on the French Grand Guiginol melodramatic structure , which centers on a violent plot and terrifying stage effects, consistent melodrama is needed. If this is done, the visual horror of the play subsides and almost a humorous reaction results from the violence. Unfortunately, there is some inconsistency on the cast’s part in whether the play is realistic or melodramatic.

Benjamin Czarnota is properly brooding as the bloodthirsty-for-revenge Sweeney Todd. He has an excellent singing voice. He often makes distracting facial expressions and, like many in the cast, seems so concerned about his British accent, that some of his lines are unintelligible.

Valerie Reaper sings well and physically fits the role of Johanna, Todd’s long lost daughter. Chris McCarrell also sings well, but does not have the physical presence needed as Anthony Hope, Johanna’s suitor and savior.

Nick Koesters’ is lecher-right as Judge Turpin, the deviant official who sentenced Todd to exile and has taken Joanna to be his ward. He is evil incarnate.

Patty Lohr lacks the underlying humor often present in Mrs. Lovett, who lusts after Todd, but she is consistent in her characterization.

Bob Russell does a good job developing The Beadle, a pompous public official. Max Joseph adequately develops the role of Tobias, a waif who is taken in by Mrs. Lovett and Todd. Unfortunately, his version of the beautiful and haunting “Not While I’m Around” lacks concept. He sings words, not meanings.

Aimee Collier clearly develops the pathetic Beggar Woman.

Strong points of the production include the opening number, “Pretty Woman,” “Epiphany, and “The Letter.” “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” and “A Little Priest” needed to be much more fun.

Russ Borski’s set and lighting designs are excellent.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If an effort is made to tone down the orchestra so that the words to the numerous songs could be clearly heard, Cain Park’s ‘SWEENEY TODD’ could be a positive experience. As is, unless you already know the score, you won’t grasp much of the meaning in spite of some good acting and singing.