Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
To start their 30th anniversary season, The Human Race Theatre Company in Dayton, Ohio, is presenting a unique, exquisitely sung, and vibrant production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and Hugh Wheeler's (book) brilliant masterpiece.
Sweeney Todd tells the tale of a barber (Sweeney Todd) who returns to Victorian England after years of being imprisoned on false charges by a pious judge who lusted for the barber's wife. Todd soon learns that his wife poisoned herself out of shame after being raped by the wretched official, and the judge adopted Sweeney's baby daughter as his own; Todd's thoughts now dwell only of revenge. He's assisted by Mrs. Lovett, who runs the meat pie shop below Todd's old barber shop. While awaiting the chance to exact vengeance on the judge, Sweeney descends into madness and decides to "practice" on customers who come in for a shave by slitting their throats. Even more perverse, Mrs. Lovett uses the newly available "supplies" for filling her meat pies.
The book by Wheeler is based on an adaptation of the story by Christopher Bond. The show incorporates narration (e.g. the multiple versions of "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," "The Barber and His Wife"), melodrama at its best, nuanced foreshadowing, farce, and numerous other storytelling devices with great skill. With Sweeney Todd being a mostly sung piece, it's somewhat difficult to tell where Mr. Wheeler's work ends and Sondheim's begins, but the end result is thrilling theater.
Stephen Sondheim is the greatest living theater composer/lyricist, and Sweeney Todd is considered his masterpiece by many, including this writer. The score contains character-specific musical motifs and a variety of styles, including British music hall ditties, operatic "want" songs, soaring ballads, an emotionally charged "Epiphany," and story-songs providing sufficient character backstories. The lyrics are typical Sondheim: intelligent, witty, dense, and full of multiple meanings and subtext. The score provides the necessary mysterious and angst-ridden atmosphere and tension. Highlights include "My Friends" (a love song by Sweeney to his razors), "A Little Priest," "Pretty Women" and "Not While I'm Around." The score and book are at their best in the act two song "Johanna," (one of three very different songs with that same title!) in which Sweeney sings a beautiful ballad about missing his daughter while at the same time murdering customers, thus creating a spectacularly contrasting juxtaposition of theatrical genius.
The production at Human Race is directed by Scott Stoney, who has a rich personal history with this show. Mr. Stoney uses every inch of the performance space to great effect, employs efficient scene transitions, and includes many details which bring additional layers to the characters. His opening scene is staged with his actors portraying either the post-mortem victims or still-reeling survivors (many as widows in mourning attire) of Sweeney's reign of terror, which sets the proper tone for the evening. For those who are queasy about stage violence, you should know that the staging of the killings does not include blood. The limited yet apt choreography is by Tracey Bonner, and Sean Michael Flowers capably leads an eight-piece band.
The cast in this production is uniformly excellent. As Sweeney, Jamie Cordes sings the challenging role very well, and skillfully captures the detached, impatient, and brooding nature of the character. Despite the general emotional disconnect the character feels, it would be nice to see Mr. Cordes go a bit further in Sweeney's highs and lows, such as in "Epiphany." Still, it is a solid, musically wonderful, and well-suited performance. Rebecca Watson delightfully portrays Mrs. Lovett as a Victorian version of trailer trash, and with a drolly questionable moral code and constantly calculating mind. She has a nuanced line and lyric delivery, along with first-rate singing, forming a delicious take on the role that is a joy to watch. Her performance of "By The Sea" is especially enjoyable.
The entire supporting cast and ensemble are likewise deserving of praise. Zach Steele is an eager and tender Anthony, and Kimberly Hessler is a justifiably forlorn Johanna; both sing their roles very well. David McDonald is a perfect vocal fit for Judge Turpin and captures the many layers of the character splendidly. Craig McEldowney (Pirelli) and Aaron Vega (The Beadle) provide funny and committed takes on their roles, as well as great vocals (including some difficult falsetto). DJ Plunkett supplies a full emotional arc and many effective details as Tobias, and Christine Zavakos does well in all respects as the Beggar Woman. There were a few hiccups on opening night with performers not completely matching their singing to the musical accompaniment, but that will likely smooth out quickly with more performances.
Dan Gray's very functional unit set includes a turntable and plenty of nooks and crannies. The well-suited costumes by Janet G. Powell capture the full range of Victorian socioeconomic attire. The lighting by John Rensel is varied and stark, befitting the setting. Jay Brunner's sound design includes many useful sound effects, though there were microphone issues on opening night.
Sweeney Todd is a difficult show to cast and perform, and even more challenging to present with a fresh perspective. The production does all of these with flair and professionalism and is a fine way to kick off this anniversary season.
At The Human Race Theatre Company, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street runs through October 2, 2016, in Dayton, Ohio. For more information and tickets, call (937) 228-3630 or visit www.humanracetheatre.org.